Monthly Archives: January, 2015

Are Cleanse Diets a Good Idea?

It’s January, which means that New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight are still at the top of many people’s priority lists.  I’ve written at length about the best diets (or, should I say, eating plans) out there, but I haven’t given much discussion to some of the worst.

Knowing which diets you should not follow is really just as important as knowing which diets you should.  For every good diet out there, there are at least five bad ones, some of which are easier to spot than others.  When deciding which eating plan you’ll choose to help you lose weight, beware of any diet that involves the following:

  • Cutting out certain foods or food groups
  • Fasting or following a strict eating schedule
  • “Miracle pills”
  • Consuming fewer than 1,200 calories a day

Any diets that include one or more of the above may put you at risk for nutrient deficiency; alter your metabolism in an unhealthy way; cause unwanted, potentially serious side effects; and leave your body without enough fuel to properly function.  Cleanse, or detox, diets, about which I am occasionally asked, can contain all four of these diet deal-breakers, despite how healthy they sound.

The philosophy behind “cleansing” is simple – by replacing food with a special juice or water formulation, you will theoretically “recharge, renew, and rejuvenate” your body by clearing it of all toxins.  Unlike some of the best diets to follow, like DASH or TLC, the rationale behind cleanse diets isn’t supported by scientific evidence; most of the “evidence” that supports these types of diets is psychological and spiritual, meaning it comes from people who have tried a cleanse diet and claim to have felt much better as a result.

Taking someone’s word for the effectiveness of a diet without scientific research to back it up is never a good idea.  In most cases, the only scientific evidence behind these types of diets shows that they’re not effective, and not safe.  What we do know about cleanses is that their proven effects are not weight loss and increased muscle mass but rather elimination of the good bacteria that keep our immune systems and digestive tracts working properly; nutrient deficiencies; low energy; increased muscle loss; and disruption of many of our body’s major metabolic processes.

Instead of depriving your body of the calories and nutrients it needs to function, try cleansing it the natural way by employing the strategy of clean eating, which simply involves eating minimally-processed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.  Think lots of whole fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and lean protein, with plenty of herbs and spices thrown in for flavor.  By feeding your body the right types of foods, your metabolism will work more efficiently, you’ll experience increased energy, and you’ll actually feel satisfied by what you’re eating.  That sounds much more fun than only subsisting on lemon water, doesn’t it?


Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Mint

Although mint is in peak season during the summer months, I always think of it as a winter-y flavor.  No matter the season, mint is a nutritious way to add flavor to meals, snacks, and beverages.  Mint is a good source of Vitamin A and iron, and it has a long history of alleviating digestive discomfort.  Menthol, the main oil found in mint leaves, helps open up sinuses, which makes it a key ingredient to have on hand during cold and flu season.

Mint Berry Blast
1 cup each fresh raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and halved strawberries
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
1 tablespoon lemon juice

1.  In a large bowl, combine the berries, mint and lemon juice; gently toss to coat.
2.  Cover and refrigerate until serving. Serves 4.

Recipe from Taste of Home

Mint and Fruit Smoothie

¼ cup red seedless grapes, frozen
¼ cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
3 frozen strawberries
1 cup cubed fresh pineapple
3 fresh mint leaves

1.  Place frozen grapes, applesauce, and lime juice into a blender. Puree until smooth.
2.  Add frozen strawberries, cubed pineapple, and mint leaves. Pulse a few times until the strawberries and pineapple are blended into the drink. Serves 2.

Recipe from AllRecipes


Healthy Water Alternatives

You’ve heard it more times than you can count:  For optimal health, you should drink water, and lots of it – at least 64 ounces (the equivalent of eight, 8-ounce glasses) each day.  You’re aware that water is a great way to help you feel full and satisfied without putting any extra calories into your body.  You get it – water is good for you, and you probably need to drink more of it to help your body work properly.  But what if you don’t like the taste (or lack thereof) of water?  What if you struggle to drink as much of it as you should?

The good news is that almost any beverage (with the exception of alcohol) counts toward your recommended daily 64 ounces.  However, most other beverages contain things that water does not, namely calories, sugar, artificial sweeteners, or chemical additives.  There are, however, some healthy and tasty water alternatives you can turn to for hydration.  If you don’t want to reach for water the next time thirst strikes, consider one of these alternatives:

  • Unsweetened Iced Tea. Unsweetened iced tea is my go-to beverage when I want a drink that tastes like something.  I have an iced tea maker at home (you can get one at stores like Target or Bed, Bath, and Beyond for less than $20), which I use to quickly and easily brew a pitcher of my favorite tea.  If you don’t have an iced tea maker at home, you can just brew a few of your favorite tea bags (there are some great varieties of herbal tea that contain fruits and spices and are caffeine free), put the brewed tea in a pitcher with some ice, and refrigerate it until cold.
  • 100% Fruit Juice. Since 100% fruit juice is made from real fruit, it often contains many of the vitamins and minerals found in whole fruit, making it a healthy choice.  However, when fruit is juiced, the skin (which contains most of the fruit’s fiber) is discarded, so a glass of fruit juice won’t fill you up as well as a piece of whole fruit.  This, in addition to the fact that fruit juice contains around 100 calories per cup and more concentrated sugar, is a good reason to limit yourself to one, 8-ounce glass of fruit juice a day.  When choosing a juice, make sure to read labels to ensure it’s made from 100% fruit and doesn’t contain any added sugar.
  • Skim or 1% Milk. While milk is not calorie-free, it’s one of the healthiest beverages out there, due to its high calcium content.  Milk is also a great source of protein and is fortified with Vitamins A and D.
  • Flavored Seltzer. If you crave a calorie-free carbonated beverage that doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners, seltzer is the way to go.  Most seltzers on the market are flavored with natural ingredients (my personal favorite brands are Schweppes and Polar), and many taste similar to fruity sodas.

Although the above beverages are great alternatives, you should still try to drink a few glasses of actual water each day.  If you really can’t stand to drink plain water, consider adding a flavor boost by squeezing in the juice of a lemon, lime, or orange or adding a little bit of 100% fruit juice to your glass.  Your body will be reaping all the benefits water provides, and your taste buds will be satisfied, too!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Brown Rice

Rice is a staple of many diets, and it’s commonly served as a side dish to entrees at Mexican and Asian restaurants.   The kind that’s served at restaurants (and perhaps in your very own home) is usually of the white variety, meaning it provides calories, starch, and little else in the way of nutrition.  There is, however, a much healthier alternative out there in the form of unprocessed, whole grain, brown rice.  Brown rice is white rice before it’s been processed – it contains the whole rice grain, including the fiber-rich bran and germ.  Brown rice is also a naturally good source of certain B vitamins, iron, and magnesium, which are all lost when it gets processed into white rice.  Nowadays, it’s very common for restaurants to serve brown rice as an alternative to white – you just have to ask for it.  Substituting brown rice for white is such an easy way to make any meal a little more nutritious, so why not give it a try the next time you make or order your favorite rice-containing meal?  Or, you can start from scratch and use brown rice in a new and non-traditional way, like in the recipe below.

Meatless Meatballs

1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
½ small onion, chopped
¼ cup mushrooms, chopped
¼ cup raw sunflower kernels
1 cup brown rice, cooked
1 can (15.5 oz) red kidney beans, drained
1 large egg, or ¼ cup egg substitute
¼ cup panko bread crumbs (preferably whole wheat)
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Black pepper, to taste
Olive oil


  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil that’s been coated with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Add carrot, onion, and mushrooms to food processor; pulse until very finely chopped.
  3. Add sunflower seeds; pulse 2-3 times. Add rice; pulse 3-4 times.   Add beans, pulse 2-3 times.
  4. Stir mixture together and pulse an additional 2-3 times.
  5. Transfer mixture to large bowl. Add egg, panko, Italian seasoning, cheese, and pepper to bowl; mix to combine.
  6. Scoop out 2 tablespoons of the mixture; roll in hands until smooth and even.
  7. Arrange balls on baking sheet. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil.
  8. Bake for 20 minutes, or until balls are lightly browned, turning after 10 minutes of cook time. Serve with your favorite pasta and sauce.  Makes about 2 dozen balls.

Functional Strength Training

By Guest Blogger Kayla Mantegazza, WellMASS Program Coordinator

Strength training is an essential component of a complete physical activity program.  It builds muscle mass, which increases metabolism, absorbs some of the shock put on your joints during daily activities, and improves stamina.  However, you don’t need to use heavy weights or complex machines to build strength, increase muscle tone, or improve athletic performance.  In fact, you already own the equipment necessary to start an effective strength training program:  your body.  Performing exercises that rely on bodyweight to develop strength by mimicking movements you frequently perform throughout the day is known as functional strength training. Practicing functional training reduces stiffness, improves range of motion, and develops strength, balance, and flexibility.

There are a few core differences between traditional strength training and functional strength training.  Traditional strength training — such as a seated hamstring curl — typically isolates one muscle group at a time (in this case, as its name suggests, the hamstring).  Conversely, functional strength training — such as a forearm plank — activates many muscle groups simultaneously (in this case, the core, lats, shoulders, and quads).  The benefit to training multiple muscle groups at once is that you can build strength more quickly as well as burn calories more efficiently than you would if you were working only one part of your body.

Traditional strength training and functional training also differ in their outcomes.  The goals of traditional strength training are to maximize the amount of weight you can lift and build muscle for aesthetic purposes.  Functional strength training will still help you achieve your aesthetic goals, such as losing inches and reshaping your body, but success is typically measured by improvements in range of motion, stability, and flexibility rather than the amount of weight you can lift or the size of your muscles.

To perform an exercise that will make you functionally strong, there are a few guidelines to follow.  The first is to perform the exercise while standing without support.  When you train while sitting, laying on a bench, or using a wall to support yourself, you don’t need to engage your core muscles or work as hard to maintain your balance, posture, and form as you would if you were performing the exercise without the support of a mechanical aid or piece of furniture.  The next guideline to follow is to train with free weights (dumbbells) instead of weighted machines.  Dumbbells promote strength while improving muscle balance.  While weighted machines are not inherently bad or ineffective, they typically guide you through impractical motions that don’t reflect the movements you naturally make throughout the day, nor do they require balance.  Lastly, be sure to focus on compound exercises rather than those that isolate one muscle group.  Below are some examples of functional strength training exercises that follow these guidelines.  Make sure you talk with your doctor before starting any new exercise program.

Glute Bridge:

Glute Bridge

Muscles Worked: Calves, Hamstrings, Glutes, and Lower Back

To perform this movement, lay on your back with your heels underneath your knees about 12-15” from your body.  Lift your hips up into the air pushing down from your heels, stabilizing onto your shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds and lower back to the starting position. Make sure to push your chin away from your chest as it rises closer.  Squeeze your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back throughout exercise.

Bird Dog:

Bird Dog

Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower Back, Abs, Shoulders, and Arms

Start out on all fours with your back in a tight, neutral position, keeping your head in line with your body (don’t look up or down). Reach your arm straight out in front of you.  While extending your arm, extend your opposite leg (i.e., right arm and left leg).  Once you have both your arm and leg out, pause for a 2-second count and then lower back to the start position.  Switch sides and repeat. Avoid letting the body twist or change height.  Imagine keeping a small ball on your lower back and keeping it in place going from step A to step B and back to the start.

Cross Over Crunch:

Cross Over Crunch

Muscles Worked: Rectus Abdominals, Obliques, and Transverse Abs

Start on your back with your feet 10-12” away from your body.  Place your ankle on your knee. Take your opposite hand and place your fingertips behind your ear.  This will allow you to support your head and neck. Start to turn your upper body toward your raised knee by using your abdominal muscles to lift your shoulder blades and head as one unit toward the knee. The goal is to have your elbow cross over your belly button.   Hold for one second and bring back to start.  Perform this sequence for desired number of reps and then repeat on the other side.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Limes

Lemons and limes often go hand in hand, so that’s why I’m featuring the two as back-to-back Healthy Ingredients of the Week.  Like their fellow citrus fruits, limes are an excellent source of Vitamin C and a great way to add a low-calorie burst of flavor to both sweet and savory dishes.

Sea Scallop Salad with Honey-Lime Dressing


Honey-Lime Dressing:
⅓ cup fresh-squeezed lime juice (2 to 3 limes)
3-4 teaspoons honey, or to taste
1 tablespoon white wine or rice vinegar

Seared Sea Scallops
1 tablespoon grapeseed or peanut oil
1 ½ to 2 pounds sea scallops, patted dry
1 package mixed greens
2 handfuls chopped vegetables, such as orange bell peppers and jicama



  1. To make dressing: Whisk together lime juice, honey, and vinegar until honey is completely incorporated. Taste and adjust accordingly. Set aside.
  2. To make scallops: Heat oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. Add a few scallops to skillet, being careful not to crowd pan. Cook 2 to 4 minutes per side until golden brown on outside and scallops can be turned easily.
  4. Turn and cook just until opaque throughout. Transfer to a plate; repeat with remaining scallops.
  5. To serve, arrange greens and vegetables on individual plates. Place scallops on top, whisk dressing to recombine, then drizzle sparingly over top. Serves 4-6.

Recipe adapted from 

Mango-Lime Ricotta Parfaits

2 ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and cubed
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon grated lime zest, plus 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 ½ cups part-skim ricotta cheese


  1. In a bowl, toss together mangoes, sugar, and lime zest and juice. Let stand 20 minutes.
  2. Top ricotta with mango mixture, and serve. Serves 4.

Recipe from Martha Stewart 

How Can I Lose Weight – FAST?

If you’ve been to any of my weight management Lunch ‘n Learns, you’ll know that this is a trick question.  Unfortunately, no magic bullet exists for fast and easy weight loss – there are no reliable studies that prove that pills, creams, and other “miracle cures” work, and most studies that are out there show that all of these fast fixes come with a handful of unpleasant, and often unsafe, side effects.

Many people experience short-term rapid weight loss the first few weeks after beginning new eating and exercise routines.  This is due to the loss of water weight, which comes off quickly.  There is only so much water weight to lose, and it takes a little bit more time to lose weight that’s due to excess fat, which is the weight that really matters if you want to improve your health.  If you are in the process of losing weight, you can reasonably (and safely) expect to lose 1-2 pounds a week after that initial weight loss.

Even though 1-2 pounds a week may not seem like much, sustaining that type of weight loss is a big accomplishment, albeit one that takes a little work.  The simplest way to keep losing weight is to make sure you are burning more calories (through exercise and daily activity) than you are consuming (through food and drink).  Maintaining a calorie deficit of 500 each day (meaning you burn 500 more calories than you eat/drink) should result in one pound lost each week; a 1,000-calorie deficit should result in a weekly weight loss of two pounds.

Keeping track of how many calories you consume and burn each day isn’t quite as simple, but this becomes easy with practice, readily available tools, and an understanding of how your body works.  The easiest way to track caloric intake is by keeping a food journal.  This involves reading food labels to determine how many calories are in the foods you eat and the beverages you drink and keeping a log of every bit of food or beverage that enters your mouth.  Some people enjoy using a paper food journal, while others prefer keeping track on their computer or smartphone with the help of an app like MyFitnessPal or CalorieCount.  It doesn’t matter what method you choose – as long as you are aware of how many calories you’re truly consuming each day, you can begin to plan an activity routine that helps you burn a greater number of calories.

You may have used a calories-burned calculator on the WellMASS portal or other wellness website, and been discouraged by the fact that exercises like walking or yoga only burn about 300 calories an hour.  The good news is that you don’t have to walk for 6 hours to burn more calories than you consume, as your body is doing some of the hard work for you without you even realizing it.  That’s right – your body burns calories all day long, even when you’re sleeping.  It needs calories to perform essential functions like breathing and digesting food.  While the only surefire way to determine exactly how many calories you truly burn is to get tested in a laboratory, you can get a rough idea of how many calories you burn each day (factoring in light-to-moderate physical activity) by multiplying your weight by 15.  You can then plan your caloric intake accordingly – subtract 500 from this number to lose a pound a week; subtract 1,000 to lose two pounds.

I could talk about weight loss all day, but I will save more of my tips for another time.  I will leave you, though, with an insider secret on the one thing that actually has been shown to help achieve faster weight loss:  yogurt.  Enjoy!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Lemons

When life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade, but that can be pretty high in added sugar.  Instead, I’d encourage you to use any lemons that come your way to make one of the following dishes, which don’t allow lemons’ nutritional assets to be overshadowed by too much sugar.  Lemons are an excellent source of Vitamin C, an important immunity-booster that’s critical during cold and flu season.  Lemons are also a great low-calorie, low-sodium way to add flavor to a dish – they can be used in place of calorie-laden salad dressings or sauces and make a great alternative to salt when seasoning a dish.


Almond- and Lemon-Crusted Fish with Spinach

Zest and juice of 1 lemon, divided
½ cup sliced almonds, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 ¼ pounds cod or halibut, cut into 4 portions
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, slivered
1 pound baby spinach
Lemon wedges for garnish



  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.
  2. Combine lemon zest, almonds, dill, 1 tablespoon oil, and pepper in a small bowl.
  3. Place fish on the prepared baking sheet and spread each portion with 1 teaspoon mustard. Divide the almond mixture among the portions, pressing it onto the mustard.
  4. Bake the fish until opaque in the center, about 7 to 9 minutes, depending on thickness.
  5. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant but not brown, about 30 seconds.
  6. Stir in spinach and lemon juice and season with pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the spinach is just wilted, 2 to 4 minutes.
  7. Cover to keep warm. Serve the fish with the spinach and lemon wedges, if desired.


Recipe from EatingWell magazine, January/February 2011 

Lemon Rice Pudding

1 lemon
¼ cup brown rice
2 cups 1% milk or unsweetened almondmilk
1 ½ tablespoons sugar



  1. Preheat the oven to 250°F.
  2. Peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler and cut the peel into fine strips.
  3. Mix the peel, rice, sugar, and milk in a small ovenproof dish.
  4. Put in the oven and cook uncovered for about 2 ½ hours, stirring every 45 minutes or so. Serve warm out of the oven, or refrigerate and serve cold.  Serves 2-4.

Recipe adapted from The Kitchn