Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Grain-Free Day 24: A Habit is Born

A little light bulb went off in my head this weekend about my grain-free challenge.  I don't think about it anymore.  The fact that I gave up complex carbohydrates for 30 days doesn't register in my daily consciousness.  When I make a veggie omelet I automatically crack an extra egg or two in place of whole wheat toast.  I pack two to three servings of vegetables and three protein sources in my lunch every day.  If I'm hungry for a snack, I robotically check the fruit bowl and see what kinds of nuts are in the pantry. 

What amazes me the most is that I don't miss grains at all.  I don't sulk over my eggs and wish there was a piece of toast on the plate.  I don't think "I could really go for some pasta for dinner tonight".  There have been little to no temptations either.  No unplanned calls for pizza delivery in a moment of weakness and no grabbing a granola bar because it's more convenient.  Even when a certain someone (aka my husband) literally waved a tortilla chip directly under my nose, I respectfully declined.

Holy crap, I formed a habit, haven't I?!

In the first few days, grains were on the forefront of my mind from every bite I took to every hunger pain that hit.  It took careful and consistent planning to be 100 percent compliant.  But eventually, it somehow slipped away from my conscious awareness and the autopilot kicked in.  This got me thinking.  What exactly did I do to create this habit?  A quick encounter with Google revealed some common characteristics:

Make a commitment
I chose to test drive this grain-free notion for 30 days.  Why that long?  Well, I planned to start on April 1 and there are 30 days in April.  It takes 21 days to make a habit.  And you should give your body at least four weeks to respond to change.  I could go on and on but the point is, set a realistic time frame and stick it out.  No exceptions.

Be consistent
I have honestly been 100 percent compliant since the start.  It helps that I've had ample practice in eating grain-free.  Eating is something we do every day, and usually six meals a day for me, so there has been plenty of opportunity for action.  When trying to build a new habit, I would recommend 90 percent consistency.  Let's say your goal was to eat whole foods with every meal and you eat five times a day.  That's 35 meals per week so to be 90 percent compliant you could splurge on 3.5 of those.  You could strive for more or less than that, but be honest with yourself.  Doing something well half the time is only doing something well half the time.

Replace lost needs
I was definitely hungry the first week until I found my groove.  That's because I made the mistake of not substituting grains with anything else.  I had removed them from my diet completely.  Eventually I caught on, adding in larger portions of protein, vegetables, fruit, and fat sources.  I even discovered some new favorite foods such as chicken sausage, plain avocados, and beets.  Problem solved.  It is important not to look at habit-building as a negative experience.  If you are eliminating something, replace it with something positive to stay balanced.

Eliminate temptation
Because I started this immediately after returning from vacation, my refrigerator and pantry were a blank slate.  I made sure not to purchase any foods that did not fit the protocol so I wouldn't be tempted during a spontaneous meltdown.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I had one Kashi dark chocolate oatmeal cookie left (my favorite) which I debated saving for a Day 31 celebration.  However, by that time it would probably be stale and every time I opened the cabinet it would be staring me in the face.  In the garbage it went.  Clear the pathway for success.  There will be enough to deal with from both the emotional and logical sides of the brain.  Don't involve situational obstacles on top of it.

Track progress
I did the whole nine yards with measurements on Day 1.  On Day 15 I re-measured and there will be one final round at the conclusion.  How am I supposed to know if anything worked otherwise?  Biometrics like I did are great indicators as are more simple measures like making check marks on a calendar for compliant days.  There should be some objective way to measure the outcome which will determine whether or not to continue with the method.

Create accountability
I put it out there on the internet that I was going grain-free for 30 days.  It doesn't get much more accountable than that.  My family and friends were also made aware, whether they cared or not.  Bringing others on board gives you someone to answer to, someone to keep you honest.  It's easy to have convincing internal conversations with yourself to justify breaking a habit.  The external conversations aren't always as lenient.

All six of these practices helped activate my cruise control.  While it certainly isn't an exhaustive list of methods, it's a good start.  Creating new habits are hard, especially in the beginning.  Few people honor the commitment, but those who do are usually happy they did.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Practice of Meal Planning

Have you ever made a trip to Home Depot for some random items and accidentally forgot your shopping list?  The list wasn't that long so you convince yourself you'll be able to remember everything without a problem.  You know lawn fertilizer was the first item so you pick that up right away.  Next was a new air filter but once you arrive in the aisle you can't seem to remember the correct size.  Was it a 20 x 24 in or 16 x 24 in?  Who cares, just pick one, because look at that awesome 50-pair shoe organizer that would fit perfectly in your closet!  Gotta have it, so in the cart it goes.  The thought of your shoes having a happy little habitat produces an instant high but it's time to come back down and get what you need to caulk the sink in the half bathroom.  Got it?  Good.  On the way to the check-out, the calming spa tones of the paint section beckon and lure you into a drunken state of relaxation.  Now's not the time so you shove a few samples in your bag and are on your way.  All in all, a successful trip!

Until you get home and realize you have the wrong size air filter, a giant monstrosity of a shoe shelter that doesn't allow for walking in your "walk in" closet, an awesome caulk gun but no caulk, and the sudden urge to repaint the entire first floor of your home.  The results are a far cry from the original plan when left unguided.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail," so the saying goes.  It holds true for trying to accurately navigate Home Depot sans list and trying to eat healthy.  You can't expect to to consistently make enough solid nutritional choices that produce significant results by just winging it.  Good plans make for good execution.  Without planning your meals, you're left to rely on whatever fast food chain is on the nearest corner, whatever pre-packaged food is handy, or whatever your craving is dictating at the moment.

When you prepare your food in advance you are in control of what goes into your body.  You don't have to worry about hidden ingredients or what your meal was cooked with.  You aren't left disappointed that the protein serving wasn't enough or that you're falling short on servings of vegetables for the day.  And you don't have to worry about a moment of weakness steering you in the wrong direction when there's a full, nutritious meal right in front of you. 

It takes some time.  It takes some effort.  But it produces results.  Here are a couple strategies to help. 

Post-Grocery Shopping Prep
Take a few extra minutes to sort and organize your groceries when you return from shopping.  Wash and cut all your vegetables and fruits.  Pre-portion items like nuts and dried fruit into smaller baggies.  Dish out some Greek yogurt or cottage cheese into smaller containers and throw some berries on top.  The only thing left to do is grab what you need when you're hungry or ready to cook. 

Always Cook for Leftovers
Automatically double up your dinner recipes.  Not only will it save you time from having to prepare something for lunch the next day, it will make you use up any ingredients unique to the dish that might otherwise go to waste.  When cleaning up the table, package the leftovers into single portion-sized containers to eliminate another step the following day.

Establish a Weekend Ritual
This requires a little more of a time commitment but can pay off for several days.  Take a few hours out on the weekends and make meals for the entire week.  Season four to five chicken breasts with different flavors and grill.  Try one to two new vegetable dishes as well.  As always, package everything into smaller containers so you can operate on autopilot.

I prefer to do a combination of all of the above on a weekly basis.  To give you an idea of how this can play out practically, here was my "to do" list for my weekend ritual this past Sunday:

  1. slice and cook all-natural chicken sausage
  2. trim and cook chicken breasts
  3. wash, cut, and roast vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale)
  4. wash, cut, and bake 2 yams
  5. wash, cut, and grill zucchini
  6. start meat sauce for zucchini lasagna

veggies galore
What it yielded:
  • two breakfasts from the chicken sausage
  • chicken breasts for four meals
  • five 2-cup servings of roasted vegetables
  • three 1-cup servings of yams
  • full tray of zucchini lasagna for that night's dinner, plus about 5 individual meals of leftovers for the week

baked coconut (top) and honey mustard (bottom) chicken breasts

Every spare inch of the fridge is taken up, but I can easily navigate it in my sleepy morning stupor to pack meals in my portable cooler for the day.  It saves me from selecting some edible mystery from the company cafeteria and the inevitable snowball effect one bad decision can have on the rest of the day.

In addition to a weekend prep day, I make a mental plan of dinners for the week.  Having this in place eliminates the temptation to order pizza upon walking through the door.  Don't forget, double the recipe and there's more meals to get you through the remainder of the week. For example, I made enough of a delicious bone-in chicken breast for dinner last night which produced another protein serving or two to fill up any free space in the fridge.

If you want to see some serious health improvements, you must take the time to plan.  Simply wanting to eat better is useless unless it's backed up by some preparation and action.  It's like dreaming of winning the lottery without buying a ticket.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Grain-Free Day 16: Over Halfway There

Yesterday marked the halfway point in my 30-day grain-free journey.  It was a good opportunity to monitor my progress so I went through the complete array of measurements.  Scale weight, a seven-site skin fold test for body fat, and circumference measurements of the chest/waist/hip/arm/thigh/calf - the works.  After the close encounter with the tape measure and feverishly scratching down an assortment of numbers, I rushed to compare them to the ones taken April 1st. 

Drum roll please...

fingers crossed





No change (other than a four pound weight loss that was acquired while in Cancun).

My weight held normal for me, my body fat is still 15 percent, and all my circumference measurements were relatively the same.  There have been no noticeable changes in my energy levels or sleep quality either.  However, I am happy to report I hit two personal records in my training.  I deadlifted 150 percent and bench pressed 90 percent of my body weight.  Not too shabby for a girl with a crooked spine who has to always play it safe!

Would I have completed those lifts if I were eating grains?  Probably.  Am I frustrated that I've seen absolutely no other results?  Not really.  My curious mind is treating this all like an experiment and I didn't have any great expectations.  Since nothing happened, am I going to give up?  Not a chance.  Dramatic results are unlikely in a mere 15 days.  Real results come in subtle changes that add up over time through consistent actions. 

Napoleon Hill once said, "Most people have attained their greatest success just one step beyond their greatest failure."   

Fourteen more days to go!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Grain-Free Day 12: Sample 2-Day Meal Plans

With almost 12 days down on my grain-free experiment I'm sensing you may be wondering what exactly I'm eating on a day to day basis.  Below is what I had yesterday and what I have prepped for the remainder of today. 

Both of these are work days for me so I'm a little more structured when compared to a non-working day.  I pack all my meals for work which are usually leftovers from previous nights' dinner.  I always cook in bulk so there's something convenient for the following day. 

The days I train, I tend to consume more calories and more carbohydrates.  Day 11 was a rest day and Day 12 was a training day so you'll notice a difference in calorie consumption.  Typically, I don't count calories at all but for this post's purposes I estimated them to demonstrate just how much I actually eat. 

Day 11:  Wednesday, April 11th

Meal 1
  • 1 cup mint green tea
  • 1 1/2 all-natural chicken apple sausages
  • small handful of almonds
Meal 2
  • palm-sized portion of baked chicken breast with pesto
  • 1 cup green beans lightly tossed with olive oil
  • 1 apple
Meal 3
  • 1 scoop chocolate whey protein powder in water
  • 1/2 cup 2% cottage cheese with 1/2 cup strawberries
Meal 4
  • palm-sized portion of grilled chicken breast
  • 1/4 red pepper, 1/4 green pepper, and 1/4 cup cucumber with 2 tbsp hummus
Meal 5
  • 3 whole eggs plus 1 egg white scrambled with 1/2 cup spinach/mushrooms/onion and 1 oz pepper jack cheese
  • 1 cup brewed iced green tea
  • 3 grams fish oil, 1 multi-vitamin
Meal 6
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk and 2 pieces of dark chocolate
2,031 calories (40% protein, 40% fat, 20% carbohydrates)

Day 12:  Thursday, April 12th

Meal 1
  • 1 cup mint green tea
  • 1 cup 2% cottage cheese with 1/2 cup strawberries and 1/4 cup chopped pecans
Meal 2 (post-workout)
  • 1 scoop chocolate whey protein powder in water
  • 1 apple
  • 1 banana
Meal 3
  • palm-sized portion of baked chicken breast with pesto
  • 1.5 cups roasted kale lightly tossed with olive oil
  • 1/2 baked sweet potato
Meal 4
  • palm-sized portion of grilled chicken breast
  • 2 cups spinach and veggie salad with 1 oz natural, olive oil-based vinaigrette dressing
Meal 5
Meal 6
2,242 calories (36% protein, 39% fat, 25% carbohydrates)

So there you have it.  I am not just scraping by eating rabbit food.  There's plenty of options available and my calorie consumption is still above 2,000 to support my active lifestyle.  Not too shabby!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Grain-Free Day 10: Easter Edition

Today is Day 10 of my self-issued grain-free challenge and things are becoming a piece of (flourless) cake!  I'm down four pounds, however I'm pretty sure that was post-vacation fluff from excessive nachos and margaritas while in Cancun.  Weight loss isn't a goal of mine, rather I like to focus on maintaining a healthy body fat percentage and actually gaining a few pounds of muscle.  Scale weight is just the easiest thing to check when I don't feel like having a head-to-toe encounter with the tape measure and calipers.  I'll do a full check on measurements on Day 15 to see if anything's changed by the halfway point.

Last week I mentioned I was enduring dull headaches, some hunger pains, and sugar cravings.  Thank goodness that is over!  Rather than hazelnut creamer with a splash of coffee first thing in the morning, I've been having green tea which has about 10 mg of caffeine compared to the 100-200 mg in coffee.  Apparently it's enough to trick my brain out of caffeine withdraw so I'll take it.

To curb the hunger pains, I made a point to consume larger portions of protein.  I eat ample amounts of vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats so I focused my efforts on protein since it's very satiating.  All my food during the week is pre-portioned because I pack my meals for work.  It's eating everything I pack that's the problem.  Sometimes I eat so much freaking chicken I think I may start growing feathers.  It gets a little mundane no matter how often you mix up the seasoning combination so often times I find myself not eating the entire portion.  Not last week though.  I made it a point to put away every single bite.  See ya later hunger pains.

Another saving grace to battle my sugar cravings was this recipe for Flourless Peanut Butter Chip Cookies.  Life-changing?  Yeah, that's a good word to describe them.  It's a miracle I didn't sit there and eat the entire batch at once.  Or that the batter even made it into the oven because that was delicious too.  Don't judge me, I haven't had flour in a week!

Kicking off this second week was Easter, another potential challenge to navigate.  I always thought bunnies liked vegetables so I'm a bit perplexed why they feel the need to leave sugary marshmellow chicks and decadent peanut butter-filled chocolate eggs all over the place.  I munched on some cheese cubes and veggies prior to having heaping helpings of ham, green beans, and carrots for dinner (take some notes, Easter Bunny).  In order to take a proactive approach to my sweet tooth and resist the dessert table, I made a second batch of my cookies.  Those and some fresh fruit made for a great dessert.  I can't say I didn't notice that I had to resist red velvet cupcakes and all the other not-my-flourless-cookies scattered about the tiered serving display.  It sucked, to be honest.  However, it was a nice change of pace NOT to go into a food coma immediately following dinner or wondering why it can't be socially acceptable to wear sweatpants to a holiday gathering.

Ten days in and I'm still going strong.  No craving has been too overpowering and no situation has been challenging enough to test my compliance.  I wish I could say my skin is radiant like a baby's, my energy levels are surging higher than ever, and I'm sound asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.  Nothing dramatic like that yet.  I do feel less bloated and puffy which is awesome so hopefully the rest of the short-term benefits aren't far behind.  Twenty more days to go!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Grain-Free Day 5: Oh, the headaches!

As I mentioned previously, I gave myself the challenge of going grain-free for 30 days.  All grains, flour, oats, rice, pasta, bread, etc were to be replaced with lean meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy oils. 

Honestly, I didn't think this would be too much of a challenge.  I typically consumed complex carbohydrates at breakfast and with my post-workout drink.  Occasionally pizza, pasta (accompanied by a protein source), or rice would make a special appearance at dinner.  The rest of my meals usually consist of protein and vegetables and/or fruit.

What have I been eating since April 1st?  Pretty much the same as before.  Except breakfast has changed to 1.5 all-natural chicken sausages with a handful of almonds or a cup of 2% cottage cheese topped with 1/4 cup of sliced strawberries and 2-3 tbsp of chopped pecans.  Post-workout I've been having a scoop of whey protein mixed with water and an apple and banana.  A piece of baked salmon topped with pecans and a boatload of roasted vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and asparagus tossed in olive oil) or pecan-crusted chicken breast with baked sweet potatoes and asparagus have been making delicious dinners.

Baked pecan salmon and roasted veggies

On Day 1 of my challenge I attended a baby shower which I was anticipating to be a "sink or swim" moment.  As I waited for my table to be called to the brunch buffet, I saw people coming back with stacks of french toast drenched in thick syrup and pastries piled high enough to require a careful balancing act.  I was sweating figuring I was about to go hungry for the next couple hours.  Fortunately it wasn't a challenge at all.  Scrambled eggs, a couple pieces of bacon, a small scoop of potatoes, and a mound of fresh fruit were very satisfying.  The only thing I had to skip was the cake.  I lived.

There have been no noticeable changes in my energy level or sleeping patterns.  The first three days I've struggled with a dull headache that makes its appearance around 1 or 2 o'clock in the afternoon.  Did I mention I also gave up coffee a week ago?  I couldn't accurately say whether my headaches are attributed to wheat withdraw or lack of caffeine or a combination of both.  I can say with 95 percent confidence interval I've had better ideas than trying to do both at the same time.

Right around the time my daily headache strikes, I get hungry.  And I have some intense cravings for dessert.  If you are not chocolate or Tylenol, stay out of my way.  While I eliminated grains, I haven't increased my normal protein portion sizes.  The unintentional calorie deficit is most likely the cause of hunger so I will make a point to pack larger pieces of chicken, fish, etc.  A lovely friend/client of mine saved the day by sending me this Flourless Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe which will no doubt be the answer to my angry sweet tooth.  These will be in my oven ASAP.

Week 1 is almost done!  Stay tuned as I try to successfully navigate the weekend and Easter grain-free.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Grain-Free for 30 Days

Wow, it's been awhile!  My brain took a much needed break from blogging for a few weeks.  However, I've still been training hard and keeping my nose in nutrition and fitness reading.  While fortunate enough to be on vacation in beautiful Cancun, Mexico last week, I was able to catch up on some things I had loaded in my Kindle.

By my fourth day of lounging by the pool I finished two books I've heard a lot of buzz about


I won't recap either book as there are plenty of summaries and reviews available on the web.  Just give it a google.

Both titles intrigued me for various reasons.  The phrase "I eat paleo" invokes an image of a cult-like following to me.  Are they truly on to something or are they chugging the Kool-Aid, assuming Kool-Aid is free of processed sugars/grains/dairy/legumes?  In regards to Wheat Belly, I was interested in a cardiologist's perspective of what is causing Americans to die of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. at an alarming rate.

Both inspired me to interpret the material into my own little experiment.  What would happen if I went grain-free for 30 days?  No breads, rice, pasta, flour, oats, etc?  What would it do to my body composition?  How will this affect my lifting?  Would my sleep really improve?  Am I addicted to wheat and don't know it?  Will I drive my husband insane enough for him to pin me down and force feed me bread?  Can I even stick it out for 30 days?

Typically I only have grains for breakfast and/or post-workout with a protein shake (when I'm not in Mexico stuffing my face with nachos grande) so hopefully this challenge won't prove to be too daunting.  My main goal is to uncover whether or not I truly feel as great as I think I do.  Many testimonials mention how they had no major health issues but were amazed at how much better they felt when eliminating wheat.  In other words, they didn't truly know what it meant to feel good. 

So off I go on my grain-free journey from April 1-30 to discover if the grass really is greener on the other side.  I took complete starting measurements (weight, girth, body fat percentage, and before pictures that I may or may not end up sharing) to see if this little experiment is doing anything.  I'll keep track of how I feel, how my training is going, and what in the heck I'm actually eating in various posts.  Only time will tell if the concepts in the aforementioned books are on to something, or if I can buy my beloved Kashi Dark Chocolate Oatmeal cookies come May.