Monthly Archives: June, 2015

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Mango

While researching this week’s healthy ingredient, I was surprised to learn that mangos are the most widely-consumed fruit in the world.  Their sweet smell and taste make them just as appealing as their high nutritional value – mangos are an excellent source of Vitamins C and A and a good source of fiber, Vitamin E, several B vitamins, and potassium.  If the thought of cutting up a whole mango doesn’t appeal to you (even though it’s a fairly simple process), defrosted frozen mango chunks can easily be substituted for fresh in most recipes.

Veggie Mango Bean Wrap

Ingredients
2 green or red bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 (15-ounce) can low-sodium black beans, drained and rinsed
2 mangos, chopped
1 lime, juiced
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 avocado, peeled and diced
4 (10-inch) whole wheat flour tortillas, warmed in microwave or on stovetop

Instructions

  1. In a nonstick pan, sauté bell peppers and onion for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add beans, stir well. Reduce heat to low and simmer about 5 minutes.
  2. In a small bowl, combine mangos, lime juice, cilantro, and avocado. Reserve half of mixture for topping.
  3. Fill warmed tortillas with ¼ bean mixture and ¼ mango mixture.
  4. Fold ends of the tortillas over. Roll up to make wraps. Top veggie bean wraps with remaining mango mixture.

Recipe adapted from the United States Department of Agriculture 

Know the ABCs (and DEFs) of Skin Cancer

Summer brings with it lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, and the benefits that come along with doing so.   Being active outside can do wonders for your mental and physical health, and sunlight is a crucial component in helping your body produce Vitamin D.  However, continuous sun exposure in the absence of sunscreen can put you at risk for developing skin cancer, especially melanoma, the deadliest form.  While I’ve already discussed ways to protect your skin from the sun,  it’s also important to note that skin cancer can still occur even after taking all the recommended precautions (although protecting yourself – early and often – greatly reduces your risk).  For this reason, dermatologists recommend doing a monthly skin self-exam to check for new or suspicious moles which could be precursors to melanoma.  It’s also a good idea to have your skin checked out by your primary care doctor or a dermatologist once a year.  In the meantime, take a close look at the moles on your body and be on the lookout for any of the following characteristics:

Asymmetry:  one half does not match the other.

Border:  edges are irregular or blurred.

Color:  variable in shades or colors.

Diameter:  larger than a pencil eraser.

Evolving:  has changed over time.

Funny-Looking:  different than any other moles on your body.

The good news about skin cancer is that it’s highly curable if caught early enough, so if you notice any of the above signs of atypical moles, which have a greater chance of being, or turning into, melanoma, you should call your doctor immediately to rule out any abnormalities.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Bulgur

Bulgur, a variety of wheat known for its short cooking time, is an excellent source of fiber and a good source of protein, iron, and magnesium.  Although it’s not gluten-free, it is often considered a good gateway for those who dislike or are new to consuming whole grains, due to its mild taste and versatility.  Bulgur is probably best-known for its inclusion in the Middle Eastern salad tabbouleh, but its uses extend to many other types of cuisines.

Cinnamon Banana Crunch Bowl

Ingredients
¼ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
Dash of cinnamon
½ cup cooked bulgur
1 tablespoon chopped toasted walnuts
1 tablespoon brown sugar
⅓ cup fresh banana slices
Additional cinnamon, to taste (optional)

Instructions

  1. Combine yogurt, honey, and a dash of cinnamon in a small bowl.
  2. Toss bulgur with walnuts and brown sugar. Top with banana slices.
  3. Dollop yogurt mixture over bulgur mixture. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon, if desired.

Recipe from Cooking Light, January 2013 

 

Lebanese Tabbouleh

Ingredients
½ cup fine bulgur
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup boiling-hot water
2 cups finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (from 3 bunches)\
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint
2 medium tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch pieces
½ seedless cucumber, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch pieces
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Instructions

  1. Stir together bulgur and 1 tablespoon oil in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over, then cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes. Drain in a sieve, pressing on bulgur to remove any excess liquid.
  2. Transfer bulgur to a bowl and toss with remaining ingredients, including 2 tablespoons oil, until combined well. Serves 4-6 as a side dish.

Recipe from Gourmet, June 2002 

Time is Running Out – Take the WellMASS Health Questionnaire Today!

Loyal readers of this blog know that the WellMASS Health Questionnaire, which is available to GIC-insured employees of the Executive and Legislative branches and Constitutional Offices, is a great resource that helps participants take charge of their health.  The Questionnaire is free, 100% confidential, takes around 10 minutes to fill out, and can be accessed any time on the WellMASS portal at https://wellmass.staywell.com – up until June 30.  The Questionnaire will close at the end of this month, so if you have not taken yours this program year (which began on September 15, 2014), you only have a few more days to do so.

Taking the Health Questionnaire will provide you with a great snapshot of your current health status and, if you’ve taken it in the past, a comparison of how your health has improved from year-to-year.  Your HQ results may also qualify you for free telephonic health coaching, which connects you with a health coach who can provide you with personalized, one-on-one guidance and recommendations to get you on the road to practicing healthy behaviors.  Additionally, anyone who takes the HQ before it closes on June 30 will receive a deluxe WellMASS gym bag.

If you haven’t gotten around to taking your HQ yet this year, there’s no better time than now to do so.  And while you’re at it, feel free to take advantage of the other great tools and resources available on the WellMASS portal.  All it takes is a few minutes to become more aware and proactive about your health.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Tuna

Tuna, like other oily fish, is an excellent source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which may help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and reduce inflammation.  Tuna is also an excellent source of protein and many B vitamins, as well as a good source of iron, phosphorus, and potassium.  Some varieties of tuna can be high in mercury; if this is a concern for you, try to choose fresh yellowfin or skipjack tuna over the canned white variety.  And if you’re counting calories, stay away from Italian-style tuna that’s canned in olive oil; although the calories in the olive oil come from heart-healthy unsaturated fat, they can add up quickly.

Beefsteak Tomatoes with Tuna and White Beans

Ingredients
4 large beefsteak tomatoes
Black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 small lemons, juiced (about 6 tablespoons)
2 cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped
1 rounded teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 (14-ounce) can low-sodium cannellini beans, rinsed
2 (5-ounce) cans tuna, drained and flaked
1 small onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
¼ cup tarragon, coarsely chopped
4 sesame grissini (thin breadsticks), coarsely crushed in a resealable bag

Instructions

  1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil.
  2. Score the skin on the bottom of each tomato with a two-inch X. Place the tomatoes in the boiling water and cook just until the skins loosen, 30 to 45 seconds. Transfer the tomatoes to a large bowl of ice water to cool. Using a paring knife, peel off the skin. Cut off the top inch of each tomato. Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and pulp to make a large cavity. Season with black pepper to taste.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, Dijon and crushed red pepper.
  4. Add the beans, tuna, onion, celery, parsley and tarragon; season and toss to combine.
  5. Fill the tomatoes with the tuna mixture. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the crushed breadsticks and drizzle with additional olive oil.

Recipe from Every Day with Rachael Ray, June 2015 

Are Zero-Calorie Sweeteners Safe?

I often get asked about zero-calorie artificial and natural sweeteners.  Many people view them as a way to kick a sugar craving without breaking the calorie bank, but questions and concerns about their safety abound.  It’s easy to think that artificial sweeteners were designed for those looking to lose weight, but the truth is that they were actually created for an entirely different population – diabetics.  While zero-calorie sweeteners can theoretically help with weight loss due the fact that they’re virtually calorie-free, studies show that people who consume beverages and other foods containing these sweeteners sometimes consume more sugar, and more calories, throughout the day.  Artificial sweeteners can actually increase cravings for sugar (when you consume a food/drink containing these sweeteners, your tongue thinks you’re consuming sugar, but your brain knows you’re not and any cravings it has don’t go away) which in turn can increase sugar consumption.  These sweeteners can also disrupt metabolism, which may affect the way your body burns calories.  The body just wasn’t designed to process anything “artificial;” something similar to a chemistry experiment occurs in your body every time anything artificial is consumed.

That being said, some artificial sweeteners have better safety records than others.  Sucralose, commonly sold as Splenda, has been shown to have the fewest side effects and negative health consequences than its counterparts, so it can technically be considered the “safest” of the bunch.  Other sweeteners, like saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) and aspartame (Equal) have been shown in studies to have negative health consequences; aspartame is known to be metabolized into formaldehyde, which seems like reason enough to avoid it.  If you’re a diabetic and looking for an alternative to sugar, sucralose is probably your best bet.

Zero-calorie sweeteners that are derived from plants, like stevia (Truvia) and monk fruit extract, have been gaining in popularity due to the fact that they’re considered “natural.”  However, these sweeteners were only recently approved by the FDA, and they’re so new to the market that isn’t enough research out there to prove that they’re safe.  If you’re looking for a more natural way to sweeten your food and beverages, stick to small amounts of sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses, or agave.  Although they do contain calories, they taste sweeter, and keep blood sugar more stable, than regular sugar, so you won’t need to use as much of them to feel satisfied.  And if you’re willing to use it in moderation, real sugar only contains 16 calories per teaspoon, so it can still have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Oregano

Oregano, an herb typically sold in dried form, can pack a big nutritional punch even when used sparingly in recipes.  Oregano is high in antioxidant polyphenols and a good source of Vitamin K.  It also contains fiber, iron, Vitamin C, and many B vitamins – the more oregano used in a recipe, the more these beneficial nutrients will be present.  Oregano is a great way to add a healthy, flavorful kick to pizza and other Italian dishes, but why not think outside the box and try it in a different type of cuisine, like in the dish below?

Cuban Black Bean Soup

Ingredients
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried black beans
12½ cups water, divided
1 tablespoon canola oil
3½ cups chopped green bell pepper (about 3 medium)
2½ cups coarsely chopped onion
⅓ cup chopped shallots (about 2 small)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
1½ tablespoons sugar
2 cups diced peeled avocado
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 cups thinly sliced red onion
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup light sour cream
10 teaspoons unsalted pumpkin seed kernels, toasted
⅓ cup finely chopped seeded jalapeño pepper (about 2 medium)
Lime wedges (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place bay leaves and beans in a Dutch oven. Add 12 cups water to pan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 2½ hours or until tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add bell pepper, chopped onion, and shallots to pan; cook 10 minutes or until onion is tender, stirring frequently.
  3. Stir in cumin, dried oregano, and fresh oregano; cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes.
  4. Place vegetable mixture in a blender; add remaining ½ cup water. Puree until smooth.
  5. Add vegetable mixture and sugar to beans; simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard bay leaves. Combine avocado and juice; toss gently.
  6. Ladle ¾ cup bean mixture into each of 10 bowls; top each serving with about 3 tablespoons avocado mixture, about 3 tablespoons red onion, about 1½ tablespoons cilantro, about 1½ tablespoons sour cream, 1 teaspoon pumpkinseed kernels, and about ½ teaspoon jalapeño pepper. Serve with lime wedges, if desired.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Light, January 2008

Keep Back Pain at Bay with These Simple Strategies

Back pain is extremely common – in fact, 8 out of 10 people will suffer from it at some point in their lives. If you’re part of this statistic, know that in many cases, back pain can be prevented, or at least reduced, by following a few easy, back-friendly practices at work and at home.

At Work

  • Practice good posture while sitting by keeping your shoulders back and your spine straight. Every few hours, check your posture by placing a fist between the small of your back and the back of your chair. If it fits perfectly in between, you’re sitting up straight. If you have too little or too much extra room, then it’s time to readjust.
  • If you sit down all day, elevate your feet on a low stool or stack of books. Once every hour, stand and stretch by putting your hands on your lower back and gently leaning backward, then forward.
  • If you’re on your feet a lot, be sure to spread your weight evenly between both feet. Keep your ears, shoulders, and hips in a straight line. Your head should be up and your stomach pulled in.
  • If your job involves heavy lifting, keep your back straight as you lift from the knees, tightening your stomach muscles and keeping your head down at the same time. Keep objects close to you and don’t twist your body while lifting.

At Home

  • Since you probably spend most of your time at home in your bed, be kind to your back by purchasing a firm mattress that supports your body evenly; there should not be any gaps between your body and the bed. If you have a soft mattress, there’s no need to go out a buy a new one right away; you can make it firmer by putting a half-inch plywood board underneath it.
  • In order to prevent bulges or indentations that can lead to back pain, rotate your mattress clockwise or turn it upside down every few months (check with your mattress manufacturer for specific recommendations).
  • Choose a pillow that supports your head and neck. When lying down, you body should be fairly flat and straight.
  • Incorporate regular exercise into your weekly routine. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a day, most days of the week. If you need to take a break from exercise, make sure to take it slowly once you get back into the swing of things.

If you’re currently suffering from back pain, try low-impact exercises like yoga, walking, swimming, and stationary bike riding. Make sure to warm up and cool down before and after every workout.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Plums

We’re right at the start of plum season, and I couldn’t be more excited.  For a small piece of fruit, plums carry a lot of nutrition and sweetness without breaking the calorie bank.  One plum contains only 30 calories and is a good source of Vitamin C and, as long as you eat it with its deeply-colored skin on, an excellent source of disease-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients.  Plums are also commonly sold dried, in the form of prunes, which are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, albeit with a different set of key nutrients.  Dried plums tend to be higher in fiber and Vitamin K, but they’re still an excellent source of antioxidants.  If you choose to eat your plums dried, just be careful that you choose a variety without any added sugars to keep empty calories to a minimum.

Plum Pizza

Ingredients
1 (9-inch) refrigerated pie crust
⅔ cup apricot preserves
½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
4 ripe plums, pitted and thinly sliced
⅓ cup chopped unsalted dry roasted peanuts

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Unroll pie crust onto a large baking sheet.
  3. Warm apricot preserves in the microwave for 30 seconds. Brush preserves all over the crust.
  4. In a small bowl, combine ricotta cheese and confectioners’ sugar. Mix well and spread mixture all over pie crust, to within ¼-inch of the edges. Top ricotta with plum slices, making slightly overlapping rows. Sprinkle peanuts over top.
  5. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, until crust and peanuts are golden brown.

Recipe from Food Network 

 

Spinach Salad with Mozzarella and Prunes

Ingredients
1 orange
1-2 tablespoons grated horseradish
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
Black pepper, to taste
7 ounces pitted prunes
5 ounces small mozzarella balls
1 cup baby spinach
1 red onion, peeled and cut into thin rings
4 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Instructions

  1. Wash the orange and remove half of the peel with a zester in thin stripes. Press out juice. Mix orange juice and zests with horseradish, vinegar, maple syrup and olive oil in a large bowl. Season to taste with pepper.
  2. Add prunes and mozzarella balls. Cover and let marinate for approximately 30 minutes.
  3. Fold spinach leaves and onion rings gently in with the marinated prunes. Sprinkle salad with additional chopped walnuts, if desired.

Recipe adapted from Sunsweet