My Favorite Healthy Ingredients – Bananas and Chocolate

After almost four years of publishing the WellMASS blog, and over four years managing the WellMASS program, today marks my last post (and second-to-last day) with the program.  Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about wellness by interacting with program participants and researching and writing posts on the topics they care about.  One of the most popular features of the blog has been the Healthy Ingredient of the Week posts, and I thought it was only fitting to sign off with my favorite recipe from that series, featuring two of my favorite foods – bananas and chocolate.

Whole Wheat Banana Chocolate Chip Bread

Ingredients
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup brown sugar
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 almost-ripe to ripe bananas
¼ cup egg substitute
½ cup plain yogurt (I prefer Greek, but regular works, too)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips
½ cup pecan or walnut pieces (optional)

Instructions

1.  Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 350°.  Grease a loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray.
2.  Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl.   Cool slightly.
3.  Whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together in a large bowl.
4.  Mash the bananas with a fork or potato masher in a medium bowl.  Mix in egg substitute, yogurt, vanilla, and butter.
5.  Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined.
6.  Stir in chocolate chips and nuts just as the batter comes together; batter should be wet, sticky, and a little lumpy.
7.  Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Recipe adapted from Food Network Kitchens’ How to Boil Water.  Meredith Books 2006.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Kefir

It’s pretty common knowledge that yogurt is a good source of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that help maintain digestive health.  What many people don’t realize is that probiotics are also naturally found in a variety of other foods.  One of these foods is kefir, a centuries-old cultured milk drink that originated in the Caucasus Mountains.  Besides being rich in gut-healthy probiotics, kefir is also an excellent source of calcium, protein, and Vitamin D, and a good source of Vitamin A.  It helps to think of kefir as a drinkable yogurt; it’s creamy and has a slightly tangy taste.  Kefir is sold alongside yogurt in most grocery stores, and, like yogurt, it comes in a variety of flavors (to keep added sugars low, choose the plain, unsweetened variety).  If you’re looking for a portable, protein-rich snack, reach for a bottle of kefir.  Its smooth, creamy texture also livens up a variety of dishes, like the one below.

Veggie Noodles with Kefir Cauliflower Sauce

Ingredients
¾ cup plain kefir
6 large garlic cloves, paper skin on
6 cups cauliflower florets
6 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
4-5 medium zucchini
2 bell peppers, one red and one orange, seeded and thinly sliced
2 large handfuls of baby spinach, finely sliced
5-6 fresh basil leaves, finely sliced
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Olive oil, as needed
Black pepper, to taste
Parmesan cheese, to taste (optional)
Pumpkin seeds, to taste (optional

Instructions

  1. To roast the garlic: preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and add the garlic. Drizzle the garlic with olive oil than fold over foil into a packet. Roast for 40 minutes, or until done. Remove and let cool before peeling.
  2. To cook the cauliflower: bring the vegetable broth to boil in a large pot than add the cauliflower.
  3. Cover and boil for 8-10 minutes, or until the cauliflower is fork tender. Remove the cauliflower with a slotted spoon and add it to the pitcher of a high-powered blender, reserving ½-1 cup of the cooking liquid.
  4. To make the sauce: add the garlic, a hearty pinch of pepper, ½ cup of the cooking liquid and the kefir to the blender with the cauliflower. Puree on high until desired consistency is reached, adding extra broth or kefir as needed. If desired, add a squeeze of lemon juice and/or Parmesan cheese to the sauce.
  5. To make the zucchini pasta: Using a spiral slicer, julienne peeler, or regular vegetable peeler, cut the zucchini into spaghetti-like ribbons or strips.
  6. Add the zucchini, bell peppers and spinach to a large mixing bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss to coat before allowing to marinate for 10-15 minutes, or until ready to serve.
  7. To serve, divide the veggie pasta between bowls and top with cauliflower sauce and basil to taste. Stir to coat well. Season with additional pepper, if desired, and add Parmesan cheese and pumpkin seeds for extra crunch.

Recipe adapted from Lifeway Kefir 

Change Can Be a Good Thing When It Comes to Your Health

One of the keys to improving your health involves changing old habits and creating new ones.  It’s easy to get discouraged if these changes end up being hard to follow or don’t make you feel any better.  In order to set yourself up for success, not only do you need to make changes you can realistically expect to keep, but you also have to be ready to make these changes. There are five stages of behavior change, and knowing in which stage you fall will help you determine your level of readiness to make changes and any barriers standing in your way of doing so.

The first stage of change is precontemplation.  People in this stage are not ready or do not want to make a change.  It’s unrealistic to expect yourself to make changes for the better if these changes are not a priority.  Give yourself time to start thinking about making changes; you may notice a natural progression to the contemplation stage in which you are thinking about making changes but don’t yet know how or have the time to do so. Once change becomes more of a priority, you’ll move into the preparation stage and can begin making a plan for how you’re going to go about making changes.  With a plan in place, you can begin the action stage of change and actually start making changes and work toward meeting your goals.  When you’ve been working on making changes for more than six months, you can consider yourself in the maintenance stage, where you’ll continue working on the healthy habits you’ve created for yourself.

As you can see, change is a gradual process that follows a logical order.  You can’t – and shouldn’t – expect to go from not caring about changing to building a new habit overnight.  Take the time to think about which stage of change you’re currently in and set your goals accordingly.  With a little bit of thought and effort, you’ll be on the road to changing unhealthy behaviors into healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Shrimp

Shrimp, like other shellfish, is high in cholesterol.  However, recent research has shown that the cholesterol found in food has little effect on blood cholesterol levels, so it’s okay to eat high-cholesterol foods in moderation.  Cholesterol levels aside, shrimp is full of beneficial nutrients and a lean source of protein.  It is a good source of iron, phosphorus, and several B vitamins, and an excellent source of the antioxidant mineral selenium.  Shrimp is a great low-calorie addition to appetizers or main dishes (as long as it’s not deep-fried!).  For a different spin on the classic shrimp cocktail, try the recipe below.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

Ingredients
2 pounds cooked shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
½ cup finely chopped red onion
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 ½ cups low-sodium tomato juice
¼ cup low-sodium ketchup
¼ cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or to taste
1 ripe avocado – peeled, pitted, and chopped

Instructions

  1. Place the shrimp in a large bowl. Stir in garlic, red onion, and cilantro.
  2. Mix in tomato juice, ketchup, lime juice, and hot pepper sauce.
  3. Gently stir in avocado.
  4. Cover, and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours. Serve in one large bowl or ladle into individual bowls. Serves 6.

 

Recipe adapted from AllRecipes 

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Rutabagas

Rutabagas, a hybrid of turnips and wild cabbage, are an oft-forgotten root vegetable whose uses are as varied as the nutrients they contain.  Rutabagas are a good source of fiber, several B vitamins, calcium, and potassium, and an excellent source of Vitamin C.   Don’t let their less-than-attractive appearance fool you – rutabagas impart a slightly-sweet, slightly-savory taste all their own and are very easy to prepare.  If you’re looking to add a new vegetable to your repertoire, you can substitute rutabagas in recipes that call for other root veggies like potatoes and turnips, or try a recipe specifically designed to spotlight the humble rutabaga, like the one below.

Baked Rutabaga Chips

Ingredients
1 large rutabaga, peeled and thinly sliced
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped finely

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Cover a large baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  3. In a bowl, toss the rutabaga with the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and the black pepper. Spread the rutabaga across the baking sheet so it fits in one layer.
  4. Bake for 30-35 minutes, flipping the pieces every 10 minutes. They will curl and turn crispy.  If they need more time, put them in for another 5 minutes and check again until they are your desired consistency.  Take them out of the oven.
  5. Transfer the chips in a bowl and toss with the remaining salt; a dash of pepper, if desired; and the fresh rosemary. Serve as is or with a bowl of hummus.

Recipe from A Thought for Food 

Protect Your Heart – and Your Brain – with the MIND Diet

When it comes to heart health, the DASH and Mediterranean diets are synonymous with being good for your ticker.  Both of these diets focus on consuming copious amounts of whole foods – fruits, vegetables, and whole grains chief among them – while reducing intake of foods that are high in sodium and saturated and trans fats.  While it’s well-known that they can help improve cardiovascular function, new research has shown that combining certain components of the DASH and Mediterranean diets can improve brain function, too.  The MIND diet (short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), developed by an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by between 35 and 53 percent.

The MIND diet is centered on ten “brain-healthy” food groups that appear in DASH and/or the Mediterranean diet:  leafy green vegetables, other vegetables, berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine.  The diet involves eating at least three servings of whole grains, a salad made with leafy greens, and one other vegetable each day.  A daily glass of wine is encouraged, although not required.  Snacking is also encouraged, with nuts being the snack of choice.  Other recommendations include consuming beans every other day, poultry and berries at least two times a week, and fish at least once a week.

The MIND diet also includes five “unhealthy” food groups:  red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried and fast food.  Like all good diets, the MIND diet does not advocate cutting these foods out completely; instead, it designates them as “sometimes” foods that should be consumed in small amounts (less than one tablespoon of butter a day; less than a serving each of cheese, fried food, and fast food a week; fewer than four servings a week of red meat; and fewer than five servings a week of pastries or sweets).

The MIND diet is fairly easy to follow, as it offers suggestions more than hard-and-fast rules.  If you’d like to follow the MIND diet, all you need to do is follow the guidelines above for consuming a variety of foods from the ten brain-healthy food groups and a limited amount of foods from the unhealthy food groups.  Eating a balanced diet that includes treats in moderation is an easy way to improve your eating habits, and quite possibly, your brain and heart health, too.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Black-Eyed Peas

The United Nations has declared 2016 as the Year of the Pulse.  In the food world, the term ‘pulse’ refers to the dried form of seeds grown within pods.  Chickpeas, lentils, and beans are all considered pulses, as are this week’s Healthy Ingredient – black-eyed peas.  Pulses are prized for being a readily-available, inexpensive source of protein and other nutrients, and black-eyed peas certainly fit that bill.  Besides being high in hunger-satisfying protein, black-eyed peas are an excellent source of fiber, iron, folate, phosphorus, and magnesium.  They are a staple of Southern cuisine, most notably appearing the in popular dish Hoppin’ John.  They also work well in a variety of other dishes – the recipe below features them in an exotic twist on rice pudding.

Che Dau Trang: Vietnamese Sweet Rice and Black-Eyed Pea Pudding

Ingredients
½ cup dried black eyed peas, soaked overnight
¾ cup brown rice
¼ cup sugar
3 cups water, divided
1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk, divided
½ – 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional

Instructions

  1. Sort and rinse beans and soak overnight. Drain and rinse.
  2. In a small stockpot (at least 2 quarts), bring beans to boil in 2 cups of water; cover and reduce to a low simmer for 30 minutes.
  3. Add rice, sugar, and all but ¼ cup of the coconut milk (set remainder aside). Simmer mixture for 15 minutes covered with lid slightly ajar to avoid boil-over.
  4. After the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, add more water (½ cup to 1 cup) to achieve desired thickness. Continue simmering with lid ajar, stirring every few minutes, until the rice is tender (about 10 to 15 minutes).
  5. When the rice is done, turn off heat, add vanilla, and allow to sit covered for 10 minutes. The pudding will continue to thicken as it sits.
  6. Serve hot, chilled or in a glass with crushed ice. Dollop a teaspoon of the reserved coconut milk on top. Serves 6-8.

 Recipe adapted from Fork Fingers Chopsticks 

Nutritional Concerns for Vegetarians and Vegans

Becoming a vegetarian or vegan, by forgoing consumption of some or all animal products, has been linked to many health benefits, including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index.  While vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol – nutrients whose consumption should be limited anyway – they also tend to be lower in Vitamin B12, iron, protein, and calcium.  Deficiencies in each of these nutrients pose their own unique sets of concerns, so it’s important for vegetarians and vegans to take steps to eat a balanced diet that includes alternative sources of nutrients that might otherwise be lacking in a diet that excludes or limits animal products.

Vitamin B12, which helps the body convert food into energy and keeps the nervous system running efficiently, is found only in animal products.  While some plant-based foods like cereal are fortified with B12, it is recommended that vegetarians and, especially, vegans, talk to their doctors about receiving a B12 shot to ensure their levels are adequate.  A deficiency in Vitamin B12, unlike other nutrient deficiencies that can be resolved by taking mega-doses of supplements, is best corrected with a monthly shot.

Iron is an essential part of the body’s production of red blood cells; an iron deficiency can lead to anemia.  While iron is found in both animal (in the form of heme iron) and plant products (in the form of nonheme iron), the body absorbs heme iron much more efficiently.  Iron can still be absorbed from plant sources, and it is recommended that vegetarians and vegans include a variety of them in their diets.  Good plant-based sources of iron include nuts, seeds, beans, and green leafy vegetables.  Fortified foods are also a good option.

Protein helps the body build, repair, and maintain tissues (such as muscles) and organs.  As with iron, the body best absorbs animal-based sources of protein, as animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that the body can’t produce on its own.  Two plant proteins – soy and quinoa – also contain all nine of these amino acids, so they are excellent choices for vegetarians and vegans to consume.  Combining different sources of protein – e.g., grains (like rice) and legumes (like beans) – to ensure adequate amino acid intake is also a smart strategy.

Calcium, crucial to bone health, is abundant in dairy products.  It is also naturally found in green leafy veggies and beans and is commonly added into fortified soy products and other non-dairy products like orange juice.  Again, calcium is best-absorbed when it comes from animal sources, but a carefully-planned diet rich in plant-based sources of calcium can usually meet the body’s needs for this nutrient.

If you choose to forgo some or all animal products, a healthy, balanced diet should be able to meet most of your nutritional needs.  However, in some cases, supplementation – with B12 and other vitamins and minerals – may be necessary, so make sure to speak to your doctor to determine a plan of action.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Satsumas

Last week, my sister brought me what looked like a clementine with a stem and leaves attached.  I had never seen a citrus fruit quite like this one – and I had never tasted one as juicy, either.  This mystery fruit was a satsuma, one of the juiciest – and sweetest – members of the orange family.  While prized for their taste, the nutritional value of satsumas should not be overlooked.  They’re a great low-calorie snack that is also high in Vitamin C and a good source of potassium and fiber.  The best-tasting satsumas are usually sold like my sister purchased them – with the stems and leaves attached.  Don’t let this extra baggage fool you, though – satsumas are extremely easy to peel (and eat, and cook with).

Oven-Roasted Chicken Breasts with Satsuma Tapenade

Ingredients
½ cup fresh satsuma orange juice (about 2 satsumas)
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
1 tablespoon capers
2 teaspoons grated satsuma orange rind
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 anchovy fillets, drained (optional)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 (8-ounce) bone-in chicken breast halves, skinned
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Satsuma orange wedges (optional)
Flat-leaf parsley sprigs (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; cook until reduced to ¼ cup (about 3 minutes).
  2. Place juice, olives, and next 3 ingredients (and anchovies, if you choose to include them) in a food processor. Add 1 tablespoon oil; process until well blended.
  3. Preheat oven to 425°.
  4. Sprinkle chicken evenly with pepper. Heat 1 ½ teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 3 breast halves to pan, meat sides down; cook 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Place chicken on a jelly-roll pan. Repeat procedure with remaining 1 ½ teaspoons oil and remaining 3 breast halves.
  5. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes or until chicken is done. Serve with tapenade. Garnish with orange wedges and parsley, if desired.

Recipe from Cooking Light, December 2008 

Office Work Isn’t Easy on the Eyes – Here’s How to Treat Them Right

If you spend most of your workday sitting at a desk, staring at a computer, you may be putting your eyes at risk.  Poor lighting and an improperly placed monitor, especially one that you’re looking at for a prolonged period of time, can lead to eyestrain and irritation; watery eyes and red, swollen eyelids; double vision; a decrease in the ability to focus your eyes and see clearly; headaches from straining to see clearly; and neck and back pains from hunching over to see small items.  Chances are, you’ve probably experienced at least one of these issues at some point throughout your career, but you may not have been sure of what caused them – or of how much of an effect they were having on your productivity.  Research has shown that even slight eyestrain can reduce workplace productivity by up to 20% – if you’d like to feel more focused and productive, here are some tips to avoid eyestrain and related problems:

  • Brighten up the place by placing an extra light above your workstation or on your desk. If your workspace is naturally dim, this “task lighting” can help you see more clearly.
  • Place your computer monitor at a 90-degree angle to any nearby windows and close window blinds to reduce glare from the sun.
  • Keep the top of your computer monitor even with or slightly below eye level – the top task bar on your Internet browser or computer program should be parallel with your eyes.
  • If you wear bifocals or reading glasses, adjust your monitor so that you don’t have to tilt your head back to see clearly, or look for progressive lenses with reading, mid-distance, and long-distance prescriptions.

Even if you’ve adjusted your workspace to reduce eye problems, it’s a good idea to follow the 20-20-20 Rule throughout the workday:  Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to look at something 20 feet away. Giving your eyes a break, even if it’s for a few seconds, should help make your workday more productive and less stressful – on your body and your mind.

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