Monthly Archives: February, 2013

Keep Stepping It Up with a Walking Group

As many of you know – especially those who participated in last fall’s Step It Up! walking campaign, walking is one of the easiest ways to get your recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity.  Although most of us probably prefer walking when it’s warm and sunny out, with a little bit of creativity, walking really can be an all-weather activity. 

Last September, when our Step It Up! kickoff event was almost derailed by rainy weather, Wellness Champion Eleice Latham of HRD came up with the brilliant idea of walking the McCormack Building garage.  Since then, Eleice and her colleague Su Almeida have made a habit of walking around the garage during their lunch breaks, adding a lap each week.  Eleice and Su would like to invite any interested employees located in the McCormack Building or nearby to join them for a walk around the garage – it’s a great way to add some extra steps to your day and meet people who work in the building. The group will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30 on the 4th floor of the garage, and anyone who is interested in joining can contact Eleice at   Reminder flyers will be posted near the elevators.

If you don’t work near the McCormack Building or are unable to join Eleice or Su on their walks, you might want to consider starting a walking group at your agency.  Groups can be an informal way to stay active during the work day and make new friends at your worksite.  You’ll also have that built-in sense of accountability that will keep you on track with you physical activity goals.  If you have access to an indoor space like a garage, you’ll be able to walk with your group in hot or cold weather, rain or shine, ensuring that you stay active all year long.


Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Black Beans

Black beans are a true superfood – high in both fiber and protein, they provide a steady source of energy, help keep your blood sugar levels stable, and leave you feeling full and satisfied.  They’re also a good source of iron, manganese, and anthocyanins (a powerful antioxidant).  Black beans come in two varieties – raw and dried or pre-cooked and canned.  Raw beans take awhile to prepare – they need to be pre-soaked and cooked – but they lack the high sodium content that canned beans sometimes contain.  Due to time constraints, I normally cook with canned black beans, but I buy the low-sodium variety and rinse the beans thoroughly before I use them. 

Surprisingly, black beans, like many of the other Healthy Ingredients of the Week, can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.  Below are examples of both: a savory dish that I made for lunch yesterday, and a sweet treat I am looking forward to trying soon.


Black Bean Lasagna

2 16-oz. cans low-sodium black beans, rinsed, drained, and slightly mashed
3 cups meatless pasta sauce (either store-bought or prepared from your favorite recipe)
1 15-oz. container part-skim ricotta cheese
⅓ cup grated or shredded Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 egg white, or ¼ cup egg substitute
¼ cup 1% or skim milk
vegetable oil cooking spray
6 whole wheat lasagna noodles, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes but not cooked
1 cup shredded low-fat Monterey Jack Cheese
1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

1.  Preheat oven to 350o Farenheit.
2.  In large bowl, stir together beans and pasta sauce.  Set aside.
3.  In medium bowl, stir together ricotta, Parmesan, egg white, and milk.
4.  To assemble lasagna, spray a 13x9x2-inch baking pan or glass baking dish with cooking spray.  Spread about 1 cup bean mixture in the bottom of the dish.  Cover with 3 lasagna noodles, making sure noodles do not touch edges of dish.  Cover noodles with half of the remaining bean mix.  Top with half of the ricotta cheese mix and sprinkle on half of the Monterey Jack and mozzarella.  Repeat layers of noodles, bean mix, ricotta mix, and Monterey and mozzarella.
5.  Cover dish tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.  Uncover and bake for 10 more minutes or until noodles are done and lasagna is heated through.
6.  Let cool 5 minutes before serving.
Serves 9
Adapted from
The American Heart Association Quick & Easy Cookbook

Black Bean Brownies

2 sprays cooking spray, flour-variety recommended    
½ cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained    
¼  cup black coffee, strong    
½  cup unsalted butter   
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate    
4 large eggs    
1 ¼  cups sugar    
1 tsp vanilla extract    
⅛ tsp table salt    
1 cup all-purpose flour    

1.  Preheat oven to 350ºF. Coat a 9- X 13-inch pan with cooking spray; line with aluminum foil and coat foil with cooking spray.
2.  In a blender or mini food processor, process beans with coffee until smooth; set aside.
3.  In a double boiler over very low heat, melt butter and chocolate.
4.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. With mixer on low speed, add melted chocolate to eggs; incorporate well. Add black bean mixture, vanilla and salt; mix well. Add flour; combine thoroughly on low speed.
5.  Pour batter into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted in center of brownies comes out clean, about 25 to 30 minutes.
6.  Remove pan to a cooling rack. After 10 minutes, remove brownies from pan by pulling up on foil and placing brownies on cooling rack to cool more. Cut into 24 pieces and serve.
Taken from

Earning Points – and Rewards – with WellMASS

Two key incentives of participating in WellMASS are an increased awareness of your health status and the tools and resources necessary to help improve it.  Both of these incentives can be taken advantage of by participating in onsite programming like the Weight Loss Challenge and Lunch ‘n Learn seminars and, for employees who work in the executive and legislative branches or constitutional offices and receive their health insurance through the GIC, by logging on to the WellMASS site and accessing all of the wellness-related tools and information it has to offer.  Employees who utilize the WellMASS site have an added bonus of being able to earn points that may add up to a nice financial incentive.  Here’s how it works:

Employees receive points for taking advantage of certain parts of the website.  Any employee who earns 100 points by May 31 will be entered into a drawing to win one of 50 $250 gift cards, or a grand prize.  The initial deadline for the drawing was February 15, but it was recently extended due to demand.  You can earn points in the following ways:

Completing your Health Assessment – 50 points

Participating in last fall’s Step It Up! walking campaign – 25 points

Visiting an online health center – 25 points

Participating in an online healthy living program – 25 points

Enrolling in phone-based health coaching – 50 points

Enrolling in mail-based health coaching – 25 points

Committing to being a Wellness Champion for 1 year – 25 points

While the deadline for certain ways to earn points, like participating in Step It Up!, has passed, there is still plenty of time to take advantage of the WellMASS website and the tools and resources it has to offer.  May 31 is more than three months away; use those three months to get an idea of your health status and work on improving it by taking your health assessment and utilizing the convenient tools WellMASS offers to help you improve your health and wellness.

Hidden Causes of High Blood Pressure

February is Heart Month, and I’m sure we’ve all been hearing a lot about controlling two chronic conditions that, when left untreated, can lead to heart disease – high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Previous posts have focused on treating high cholesterol and high blood pressure with food.    While it’s important to be aware of the many treatment options available to you (especially those that focus on diet and exercise in lieu of medication), it’s just as important to understand what causes these conditions in the first place.

High blood pressure is often known as the “silent killer,” because it has no symptoms, and some people learn that they have it only after they suffer a heart attack or stroke.  Many other people, however, are lucky enough to be diagnosed with hypertension as part of a routine visit to their doctor’s office, allowing them to begin treatment before suffering long-term damage.  No matter when a person gets diagnosed with hypertension, they probably ask, “why me?”  In some cases, the cause of high blood pressure may be obvious – chronic stress, family history.  But for many others, it’s a complete shock and mystery. 

For some people, there is really no identifiable cause of hypertension.  It can develop gradually as you age, creeping up slowly as the years go by.  For others, an underlying medical condition or a medication being taken for another health issue are to blame.  Hypertension can be caused by conditions as varied as kidney problems, tumors of the adrenal gland, or congenital blood vessel defects.  It can also be caused by common medications such as oral contraceptives, cold medicine and decongestants, and over-the-counter pain relievers.  In these cases, treating hypertension simply involves treating the condition or stopping the medication that caused it.

Other people develop what’s known as “white coat hypertension,” which stems from the nervousness that accompanies a visit to the doctor’s office.  This form of hypertension often only appears at the start of a doctor’s appointment.  Other variables that can temporarily raise blood pressure, some of which may come into play right before your blood pressure is checked, include eating, standing up from a seated position, talking, exercising, or watching an exciting tv show.  In order to get the most accurate blood pressure reading, try to stay calm at the doctor’s office and refrain from performing any of the activities known to cause blood pressure to rise.  Also be sure to talk with your doctor about any underlying conditions you may have or medications you take, as these could all be the culprits of your high blood pressure.  Treating these issues is often a lot easier – on your body and wallet – than going on blood pressure medication.

Lowering Your Cholesterol, The Tasty Way

It’s easy to think that the only surefire way to lower your cholesterol is through the use of medication.  In reality, medication is often used as a last resort – a healthy diet and regular physical activity may be enough to achieve normal cholesterol levels in many people.  The National Institutes of Health developed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, or TLC model, to help those with high cholesterol lower their numbers without the use of medication.  The main principles behind this diet are to eat less saturated and trans fat and more fiber.  This can be done by eating fewer processed foods and red meat and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. 

Fruits, veggies, and whole grains are not the only foods that can help lower your cholesterol.  Foods that contain soluble fiber (the kind that helps you feel full and clears the bad cholesterol from your body), polyunsaturated fat, plant sterols and stanols, and omega-3 fatty acids also have cholesterol-lowering effects.  According to Harvard Medical School, the ten best foods to lower cholesterol contain one or more of these components:

  1. Oats such as oatmeal or cold, oat-based cereal like Cheerios
  2. Barley and other whole grains
  3. Beans
  4. Eggplant and okra
  5. Nuts
  6. Vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, and safflower
  7. Apples, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits
  8. Foods fortified with sterols and stanols, which include foods ranging from margarine and granola bars to orange juice and chocolate
  9. Soy, such as tofu or soy milk
  10. Fatty fish

Whether you have high cholesterol or not, it wouldn’t hurt to regularly include these foods in your diet.  They may help lower your cholesterol and are an easy way to incorporate a variety of nutritious, delicious foods into your everyday eating.

Easy (and Healthy) (and Tasty) Ways to Go Vegetarian

 Many of us love meat, in all its various forms – hamburgers, steak, pork chops, bacon, chicken wings, turkey sandwiches.  While meat can be a regular part of a balanced eating plan, going vegetarian, or eliminating meat from your diet, is an easy way to cut down on calories and fat, which may ultimately help you achieve your weight loss goals.  Meat, especially red meat, can also be very high in saturated fat, the excessive consumption of which can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk for heart disease.  By swapping meat out for healthier alternatives, like fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and alternative sources of lean protein, you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions, and you may find that you just feel better overall.

Unfortunately, when most people think of going vegetarian, they think of bland diets comprised solely of fruits and vegetables, which provides little motivation to stop eating meat.  However, vegetarian eating doesn’t have to be boring, and all it takes is a little research and creativity to make healthy, tasty vegetarian meals.  Wellness Champion Linn Morrill, always a great source of information, recently sent me a tip sheet on vegetarian eating from my new favorite website, Choose My Plate.  The sheet provides tips not only on finding new ways to enjoy vegetarian cuisine, but also on how to make sure you obtain all the nutrients you need each day in the absence of consuming certain animal products.  Some of my favorite tips include:

  • Don’t forget about protein.  Good plant-based sources of protein include beans, peas, nuts, soy products (like tempeh and tofu), and quinoa.  Vegetarians who also eat eggs and dairy products can get protein from these sources as well.
  • Choose calcium.  Dairy products are good sources of calcium, as are fortified soymilk, orange juice, and cereal; broccoli; okra; and green leafy veggies like kale, collard greens, and bok choy.
  • Bulk up your meal with beans, peas, or mushrooms.  They can make a dish taste heartier and “meatier” without the fat and calories of meat.
  • Snack on nuts.  They’re good sources of protein, fiber, and lots of vitamins and minerals.
  • Get enough B12.  Vitamin B12 is essential for proper red blood cell health and brain function.  Unfortunately, it’s only found in animal products.  Try to get your Recommended Daily Intake from eggs and dairy, or fortified foods like cereal or soy products.

The benefits of going vegetarian are many, but making the leap to being totally meat-free can be a big, potentially scary step.  If you’d like to reap some of the health benefits of going meat-free without committing to doing so full-time, you can start by celebrating Meatless Monday, a movement dedicated to encouraging people to start their week meat-free and reap the health and environmental benefits associated with doing so.  Try to dedicate every Monday (or at least one day each week) to serving flavorful, healthy vegetarian meals, and make note of how good your body feels.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Cornmeal

Corn often gets a bad reputation for several reasons – it’s associated with genetically-modified crops, it’s hard to digest, and it has a high starch content. Here’s a little known fact about corn – it’s a whole grain.  Which means it’s high in fiber and can help you feel full and satisfied for a long time.  It’s also a good source of iron and the B vitamins. 

Although corn is a grain, most people consider it to be a vegetable; it may be higher in calories than most veggies, but it’s a smart, low-calorie choice in the “whole grain” world.  I am not a huge fan of whole corn (although I do like to eat it on the cob during the summer, when it’s at its peak), but I do like cooking and baking with cornmeal.  Cornmeal carries almost the same nutritional benefits as whole corn, and it’s much easier to digest, since the corn has been ground thin.  It comes in several different colors and varieties and is a staple of many different ethnic cuisines.  The following recipes showcase two variations on cornmeal, and one of them even sneaks in another Healthy Ingredient of the Week!


Pumpkin Polenta with Black Beans

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 15-ounce can low-sodium black beans, rinsed and drained
2 roasted red peppers, chopped
3 cups vegetable stock or broth
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 cup quick-cooking or instant polenta (Italian cornmeal!)
1 tbsp (or 4 sprigs) chopped fresh thyme
1 cup shredded Manchego or sharp cheddar cheese
salt and black pepper, to taste

1.  Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the olive oil and onions; cook for 3-4 minutes.
2.  Add the black beans and peppers and heat through for 1-2 minutes.
3.  In a large saucepan, bring the vegetable stock and butter to a boil and stir in the pumpkin.  Add the polenta and stir until it forms a mass (about 2 minutes).
4.  Remove pan saucepan from the heat and add thyme, salt, pepper, and cheese.  Season to taste.
5.  Pour the polenta onto plates and top with the bean mixture.
Serves 4.

Adapted from the cookbook Rachel Ray 365:  No Repeats.  New York:  Clarkson Potter/Publishers. November 2005.

Blue Corn Pancakes

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup blue cornmeal
Pinch salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 ½ to 2 cups milk
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh blueberries

1.  Preheat a nonstick griddle.
2.  Mix together the dry ingredients in a medium bowl.
3.  Beat the eggs and 1 ½ cups of the milk in a medium bowl until combined, then stir in the melted butter.
3.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
4.  Gently fold in the blueberries. If the batter seems too thick, add some of the remaining milk.
5.  Ladle approximately 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle for each pancake. Cook until the bottom is light golden brown, flip, and continue cooking for about 30 seconds.

Makes 12 pancakes, or 4 servings.

Adapted from the Food Network