Take the Focus Off Food This Holiday Season

As a nutritionist, I love food – the healthier, the better (90% of the time, at least).  That being said, I also think it’s unhealthy to think about food constantly, to the point where cooking, shopping, and eating become chores and are no longer fun.   So, right before the biggest food holiday of the year, I thought it would be an appropriate time to help you think about focusing on something other than food!

Yes, Thanksgiving does mark the start of a month-long period of get-togethers that center mainly around eating.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I encourage you to attend these get-togethers and eat the foods you enjoy there.  What I don’t want you to do is obsess over everything that you eat, or feel like your whole world revolves around food for a month straight.  While the holidays are a great excuse to gather together over a big meal, they’re also the perfect time to engage in non-food-related activities with your family and friends.  Like most families, mine chooses to celebrate holidays with lots of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie; this year, however, we’ll also be creating some new traditions that don’t involve food.  Here’s what’s in store for my family this holiday season; maybe you can try some of these ideas with your own family or friends to make holiday gatherings a little less food-centric:


  • Turkey Trots and Holiday Hustles. My husband has recently gotten into distance running, and he’s already signed up for a few holiday-themed races.  On Thanksgiving morning, the first thing on his mind won’t be turkey and pie; rather, he’ll be thinking about the five miles he’s about to run in the Feaster Five road race.  Not a runner?  Most local races allow walkers to participate as well.  It doesn’t matter how fast you run or walk; all that matters is you’re moving, and enjoying a holiday event that actually burns calories!
  • Getting Crafty. Dessert is a big part of holiday celebrations in my family.  And while we’ll still be enjoying dessert after our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, we won’t be making a big deal of it.  This year, instead of gathering together for a full day of cookie-baking, the women in my family will be harnessing our creativity to make our own Christmas wreaths.  Getting the family involved in a holiday craft is a great way to get in the spirit, foster togetherness, and create something that won’t have an effect on your waistline.
  • Giving Back. My sister is passionate about volunteering, and she is looking forward to helping out at a local food pantry this holiday season.  While serving those in need does involve food, it’s in the most selfless sense.  Taking the time to think about what others don’t have, and all of things that you do have, is a great reminder of what the holiday season is really about.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Butternut Squash

If you’ve looked around the produce section of your local supermarket lately, you’ve probably seen lots of butternut squash lining the shelves.  Butternut squash, a close cousin of the pumpkin, is ubiquitous this time of year, and that’s not a bad thing.  Like other orange-hued fruits and veggies, it’s extremely high in Vitamin A and an excellent source of Vitamin C.  It’s also high in potassium and magnesium.  Pureed butternut squash makes a great substitute in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin.  Although nothing beats the convenience of being able to buy and use butternut squash that’s already been pureed, cooking with whole butternut squash is almost just as simple.  However, a lot of people are hesitant to cook with whole butternut squash, because they believe it takes a lot of time to prep.  In reality, it only takes a little more work to prep a whole butternut squash than it does to open up a can or defrost a block of the pureed kind.  In order to prep a butternut squash for recipes like the one below, all you need to do is microwave a whole squash for 6 minutes, turning halfway through; peel it; cut it in half; scoop out the seeds; and then cut it into cubes.  You can also cheat a little by buying pre-cut butternut squash in the produce or freezer aisle (I won’t tell anyone if that’s the route you choose to take!).

Butternut Squash and Parmesan Bread Pudding

3 cups (½-inch cubed) peeled butternut squash
Cooking spray
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups 1% low-fat milk
1 cup (4 ounces) grated fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
8 ounces (1-inch) cubed day-old whole wheat bread (about 9 cups)


  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Arrange squash in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 400° for 12 minutes or until tender. Remove from oven; reduce oven temperature to 350°.
  3. Heat oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion; sauté 5 minutes or until tender.
  4. Add garlic, and sauté 1 minute. Remove from heat; cool slightly.
  5. Combine milk, ½ cup cheese, pepper, nutmeg, eggs, and egg whites in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk.
  6. Stir in squash and onion mixture. Add bread, and stir gently to combine. Let stand 10 minutes.
  7. Spoon into a 2-quart baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese.
  8. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes or until pudding is set and lightly browned.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light magazine, October 2004

Looking for Ways to Shop Healthier? NutriSavings Can Help!

If you’re trying to make healthier purchases at the grocery store, you may not know where to start, as grocery shopping can be a pretty overwhelming task by itself.  If you’ve ever sought out advice on how to shop healthier, you may have received one of the following basic tips:

  • Shop the perimeter of the store. The healthiest foods are often kept in the outside aisles; most junk food lurks on the inside shelves.
  • Make a list – and stick to it. It’s harder to deviate from a plan to purchase healthy foods if you’re prepared.
  • Don’t shop hungry. When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to eat with your eyes and give into impulse buys for unhealthy items.

These tips are a good starting point toward making healthier grocery store purchases, but they leave a lot of room for error, as it can sometimes be difficult to determine which foods are actually healthy.  If you need some assistance in this department, WellMASS can help.  If you are one of the first 5,000 people to take your Health Questionnaire at https://wellmass.staywell.com by December 19, 2014, you’ll qualify for a 6-month subscription, beginning January 1, 2015, to NutriSavings, an online nutrition education and grocery discount program that will provide you with all the information you need to make truly healthy purchases at the grocery store.  NutriSavings is an innovative program that’s not available to members of the general public – it’s only available to those VIPs who take their Health Questionnaire!

The concept behind NutriSavings is simple – users register their grocery store loyalty cards, and every time they make a purchase with those cards, that purchase is scored for its nutritional value, and healthier options are recommended.  Prior to each shopping trip, users also have the ability to activate a plethora of exclusive money-saving offers on wholesome food and beverage items and access  over  150 healthy recipes and practical tips from nutritionists, as well as earn cash-back rewards just for purchasing healthy items.  The money earned from purchasing items will be available for transfer to users’ checking or PayPal accounts.  By using NutriSavings, you’ll not only receive information to help you make healthier purchases, but money for doing so!

Several local grocery stores participate in the NutriSavings program, including Shaws, Star Market, Stop & Shop, Roche Brothers, Hannaford, and Wegmans.  If you shop at any of these stores, you can register your loyalty cards for one or all of them.  If you don’t have a loyalty card, the NutriSavings website provides directions on how to obtain one.  If your grocery store of choice is not currently in the NutriSavings network, you can still take advantage of the program by searching through an online database of over 100,000 products to pick out healthier choices prior to a shopping trip.  As mentioned above, the NutriSavings website also offers hundreds of healthy recipes and nutrition tips.

If you have a smartphone, you can download the NutriSavings app, which will give you instant access to nutrition scores and information via its barcode scanner, so you won’t have to wait until after you’ve made your purchases to find out how healthy they are or if there are better choices.

I’ve been using NutriSavings for around six months, and I can’t believe how much I have learned about the foods that I buy.  As a nutritionist, I know a lot about food, but I don’t always have the time to read labels and ingredients lists as thoroughly as I’d like.  NutriSavings does the hard work for me and provides me with easy-to-understand scores and quick nutrition facts about the items in my grocery cart; seeing that I’m making the right choices, and earning money for doing so, certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

If you’d like to learn more about NutriSavings, WellMASS will be hosting a webinar with Paul Gilpin, NutriSavings’ Director of Business Development, on Tuesday, November 18 at 10:00 and 1:00.  There is no need to RSVP for the webinar; simply log onto http://lifemasters.readytalk.com and call 1-866-740-1260 and enter access code 7243537.  If you can’t make the webinars, or want to hear more about my first-hand experience with NutriSavings, feel free to send me an email.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, may not be as popular as almonds or cashews, but they’re definitely a nut you want to add to your snacking and cooking repertoire.  Hazelnuts are low in saturated fat and a good source of fiber and iron.  They’re also an excellent source of Vitamin E and manganese.  Like all other nuts, hazelnuts are high in fat, albeit the heart-healthy unsaturated kind; this means, however, that they’re also high in calories, so it’s best to enjoy only about a handful of them at a time.

Carrot Puree with Hazelnut Tapenade

1 pound carrots (5-6 medium), cut into ½-inch pieces
2 medium red potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons chopped green olives
2 teaspoons freshly grated orange zest
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided


1.  Bring 1 inch of water to a boil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven fitted with a steamer basket. Steam carrots and potatoes until very soft, 12 to 15 minutes.  If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can cover the saucepan and let them simmer for the same amount of time.
2.  Meanwhile, combine hazelnuts, olives, orange zest, garlic and 1 teaspoon oil in a small bowl to make a tapenade.
3.  Transfer the carrots and potatoes to a food processor; add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil .  Process until smooth.
4.  Serve each portion with a spoonful of the hazelnut tapenade. Serves 4.

Recipe from EatingWell

Fitting in Exercise When You’re Pressed for Time

“I don’t have enough time to exercise.”  I’ve heard employees offer this as an excuse for not exercising more times than I can count.  I may have even muttered this line myself once or twice over the years, but that doesn’t mean that not having enough time is a good reason not to be physically active.   I don’t need to list all of the benefits of exercising, but I will remind you that regular exercise does help increase your vitality and lifespan and decrease your risk of conditions like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.  For those of us who work full-time and have numerous obligations outside of the workplace, finding time to work out may seem like an insurmountable challenge.  But in reality, it’s not, and I’m here to tell you that finding the time to exercise, even with a busy schedule, is much easier than you think.

The government’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults perform 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) a week (the equivalent of 30 minutes a day, five days out of the week) for optimal health.  This may seem like a daunting number to achieve, but there’s a lot of good news about this recommendation:

  • Activity can be spread out throughout the week, and even throughout the day. As long as you’re getting at least 10 minutes of activity at a time, you can count that activity toward your 150 minutes.
  • Everyday activities like cleaning your car count, as long as they’re performed for at least 10 minutes at a time and result in a moderate elevation of your heart rate (e.g., you’re able to talk, but not sing, while performing your activity).
  • You can get away with doing fewer minutes of activity if you increase your intensity. If you choose to perform vigorous-intensity activity (like jumping rope, or any other activity during which you find it difficult to talk because you’re working so hard), you only need to get in 75 minutes a week.

Although cardiovascular exercise is often a main focus of physical activity recommendations, strength training is also important, as strength training helps build muscle, which helps increase metabolism.  Try to perform strength training exercises at least twice a week, on non-consecutive days.  Choose 8-10 different exercises that work all the major muscle groups, and perform 8-12 repetitions of each.

It’s up to you to choose the intensity and duration of your activities – find ones that fit into your schedule and that you’re comfortable performing.  If you’re stumped as to how you can possibly fit activity into your busy schedule, start here:

  • Take two, 15-minute walks during your daily breaks.
  • Jump rope for 15 minutes (you’ll burn almost 200 calories!)
  • Walk around the room when you’re talking on the phone.
  • Do push-ups, crunches, and jumping jacks during tv commercials.
  • Lift light weights while you’re watching tv.
  • Climb the stairs in your office building for 10 minutes once or twice a day.
  • Clean the house – increase your pace by challenging yourself to finish cleaning in a certain amount of time.
  • Try high-intensity interval training. Alternate back and forth between low-intensity activity, like walking, and high-intensity activity, like running, for 30 minutes.

Exercising doesn’t have to seem like a chore if you’re creative about fitting activity in whenever you can.  The next time you catch yourself saying that you don’t have time to exercise, imagine me telling you to go take a hike – or at least a quick walk around the block.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Escarole

In the past year, I’ve been on a quest to try as many new types of whole grains as possible.  Since I’ve pretty much worked my way down the list of whole grains I haven’t eaten before, I thought I’d give myself a new challenge to try new types of leafy greens.  Up until I started making my own salad dressing several months ago, I was not a big fan of salad in general.  I’ve since become sold on the idea of eating salads on a regular basis, and I actually now enjoy the taste of anything green and leafy.  Escarole, the latest salad star to make its way into my diet, came courtesy of my grandmother, who, like any good Italian, grows it in her garden.  Escarole has a slightly peppery taste and is prized for its versatility, as it can be consumed raw or cooked.  Either way you slice (or cook) it, escarole is highly nutritious – it’s an excellent source of fiber, folic acid, and Vitamins A and K.

Penne with Escarole

1 pound whole wheat penne pasta
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 medium onions, cut into small dice (about 2 cups)
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into medium dice (about 1 cup)
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
1 bunch escarole, rinsed, stemmed, and torn into bite-size pieces (about 8 cups)
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

1.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the penne and cook until just tender, about 11 minutes.
2. Drain the pasta in a colander, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water, and set aside.
3.  While the water is heating and the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a 14-inch saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, bell pepper, and black pepper, and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 4 minutes.
4. Add the garlic and escarole, and cook for 5 minutes longer.
5.  Add the cooked pasta and the reserved cooking water, and stir gently to combine. Simmer just until everything is heated through, about 2 minutes.
6.  Transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl. Add the cheese and crushed red pepper, and toss to combine. Drizzle with the extra-virgin olive oil, and serve immediately.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Channel

The Social and Emotional Benefits of Physical Activity

By Guest Blogger Kayla Mantegazza, WellMASS Program Coordinator

A few weeks ago, I visited the Department of Public Health’s Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain to participate in a Boot Camp fitness class organized by the State Lab’s Wellness Champion, Jacki Dooley.  Thanks to Jacki’s efforts, State Lab employees have the opportunity to participate in group fitness classes during their lunch breaks, which gives them an opportunity to step away from their desks and make time in their busy schedules for physical activity.  I was lucky enough to have chosen a sunny, mild day to channel my inner G.I Jane, so we were able to move the class outside and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The format of the class was very personalized and laid back.  Participants were encouraged to perform exercises at their own pace, make modifications if necessary, and take frequent water breaks.  The instructor of the class, Remy Isdaner from Soma Wellness, led us through bodyweight circuits for all of the major muscle groups such as jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, planks, and yoga poses for stretching and balance.  We also jogged a lap around the parking lot between each circuit to keep our heart rates elevated.

Aside from getting a great workout in a comfortable setting where each of us received individualized attention, my favorite part of the Boot Camp class was the camaraderie between employees.  Everyone in attendance was encouraging and supportive of one another, and several people even asked about participants who were absent from that week’s class to make sure they were okay.  For fitness novices who feel intimidated by the concept of group exercise classes because they are nervous about keeping up with their peers, this class proved the contrary.  The group setting provided us with more social support and reinforcement than we would have gotten by exercising by ourselves (or not at all!), which benefitted both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Speaking of mental wellbeing, the mental health benefits of physical activity are often overlooked.  For those of us who shed a tear at the sight of a treadmill, exercise may sound more stress-inducing than stress-reducing.  However, aerobic exercise has been shown to improve blood circulation to the brain, which may help decrease anxiety and depression.   Exercise also triggers the release of endorphins, which improve mood and in turn reduce the likelihood of turning to food for comfort.  Studies show that aerobic exercise also improves quality of sleep,  and that people who exercise are less likely to feel daytime sleepiness and more likely to report an increase in vitality.  Increased mental sharpness during periods of stress is especially valuable in the workplace.

As if those benefits weren’t enticing enough to get you out of your seat, physical activity provides an outlet for social interaction and support.  Whether you join a group fitness class or simply recruit a friend to take a walk around your building during lunch, being physically active in a community setting presents opportunities to meet people with common interests who can hold you accountable for sticking to your routine.  Being able to take a mental break from your work day to exercise with co-workers also fosters a cooperative, positive, and team-oriented work environment.  Therefore, physical activity isn’t just beneficial to the mental health of the participant, but to the overall climate of the workplace as well.

If you would like to learn more about the Boot Camp class at the State Lab or you would like some suggestions on how to set up group fitness classes at your agency, send me an email at kayla.mantegazza@state.ma.us.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Dates

We’ve been holding Take Your Health Questionnaire Days at agencies all across the state for the past month and a half.  Employees who take their HQ on the designated day at their agency get the opportunity to make their own healthy trail mix using the dozen or so dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and other ingredients we provide.  At almost every agency, the most popular ingredient at the trail mix bar has happened to be dates.  Why?  Dates are naturally sweet and look – and taste – like candy.  They seem like an indulgence but are actually highly nutritious.  Dates are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber and are a good source of potassium and B vitamins.  However, dates are also higher in sugar than many other fruits, so they’re best enjoyed in moderation – or as a substitute for a much less nutritious sweet treat. In honor of Halloween, here’s a “healthy” candy recipe featuring dates.

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Date Balls

1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup pitted dates
¼ cup natural almond or peanut butter
3 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
½ cup crispy rice cereal
2-4 tablespoons mini chocolate chips


1.  Put oats into a food processor or blender and process until they reach a fine floury consistency.
2.  Add dates, nut butter, and honey or maple syrup and continue processing until fully combined.
3.  When dough begins to form and stick together, add crispy rice cereal and chocolate chips, pulsing a few times to ensure that they distribute evenly without breaking apart completely.
4.  Using a tablespoon, scoop out balls of dough and roll them between your hands to neatly shape them.
5.  Store balls in an airtight container, either at room temperature or in the fridge. Makes 12 balls.

Recipe adapted from Running with Spoons

Cholesterol – Knowing Your Numbers

We’ve all heard that having too much cholesterol can be a bad thing – it creates fatty plaques in our arteries and can lead to heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke.  However, we actually need cholesterol in small amounts (it’s responsible for producing the cells in our body, as well as the hormones estrogen and testosterone, bile acids, and Vitamin D), and not all cholesterol is considered “bad.”  When it comes to your cholesterol, you need to consider not just your total cholesterol levels, but your levels of each different type of cholesterol, most notably:


  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol). LDL clings to the walls of your arteries, which leads to a buildup of the fatty plaques that can contribute to heart disease.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol). HDL protects you against this fatty plaque buildup by acting as a broom and sweeping the LDL from your arteries.  HDL also helps protect you against heart disease and stroke in other ways:  it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic (meaning it protects against blood clots), and has antioxidant properties.


In the past, doctors focused mainly on total cholesterol levels, but new research is showing that LDL and HDL levels are actually a better indicator of heart disease/stroke risk.  Low LDL and high HDL levels are desirable:


Total Cholesterol

Less than 200 mg/dL                                       Desirable
200 – 239 mg/dL                                               Borderline High
240 mg/dL or higher                                        High



Less than 130 mg/dL                                       Desirable
130-159 mg/dL                                                  Borderline High
160 mg/dL or higher                                        High



Less than 40 mg/dL                                         Low (Undesirable)
Greater than 60 mg/dL                                  High (Desirable)


If any of your numbers are not within the desired range, your doctor will work with you to get them where they need to be by making certain dietary and lifestyle changes.  He or she may also run additional tests to help better determine your risk for heart disease or stroke.  Cholesterol levels alone don’t paint the entire picture, but they can help you understand your risk – and spur you to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce that risk.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Edamame

The first time I had edamame, I didn’t know what to think of it.  It looks like a vegetable but is actually a legume – more specifically, a soybean.  Like other soy products, edamame is an excellent source of high-quality protein.  It’s also low in calories and high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and iron, which means it’s both healthy and filling.  Edamame is sold both in the pod and shelled; while the pods are fun to pop open, make sure you don’t eat them, as they may leave you with an upset stomach.  Since it’s what’s inside the pods that really matters, here are a few ways to incorporate edamame into your next snack or meal.

Spiced Edamame

1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 (1-pound) bag frozen edamame, in the pod


1.  Heat the salt, chili powder, and pepper flakes in a small dry skillet over medium heat, stirring until hot and aromatic, about 3 minutes.
2. Remove from the heat and crumble in the oregano.
3.  Boil the edamame pods in water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain in a colander and pat dry.
4. Toss the edamame pods with the chili-salt and serve warm.

Recipe adapted from Food Network 


Edamame Succotash with Shrimp

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch scallions, sliced, or 1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 10-ounce package frozen shelled edamame, thawed
1 10-ounce package frozen corn, (about 2 cups), thawed
½ cup reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound raw shrimp, (26-30 per pound), peeled and deveined
¼ teaspoon lemon pepper


1.  Add oil to a large nonstick skillet.  Add scallions (or onion), bell pepper, garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes.
2.  Stir in edamame, corn, broth, vinegar and salt. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes.
3.  Meanwhile, sprinkle shrimp on both sides with lemon pepper.
4.  Scatter the shrimp on top of the vegetables, cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Recipe adapted from EatingWell


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