Saturday, August 18, 2012

Cardio isn't just for the Heart

     Get up off of that couch! Inertia KILLS.....are you hearing more and more about people dying younger and younger? Well the reason is INACTIVITY. When the proof of not only the benefits of regular exercise on health is in front of you daily but also the disastrous consequences of not exercising, you’ve got to wake up and DO SOMETHING.

     EVERYBODY NEEDS TO EXERCISE – whether you’re 2, 20 or 100 years old and that’s a proven fact. Don't just start yourself, encourage your parents, children and spouse to do the same. Make sure your kids spend less time in front of the idiot box and more time outdoors or playing sports.

     Cardiovascular exercise or cardio as it is affectionately known by it’s practitioners (including yours truly) is extremely simple to incorporate into your daily routine and may be the answer you were looking for. It is defined as any form of vigorous physical activity which raises the heart rate to around 60 to 85 percent of the heart's maximum heart rate for an extended period of time, usually twenty minutes or longer. 

     It is named thus because it gets the heart (‘kardia’ in Greek) pumping more efficiently, improves blood flow throughout the body supplying more oxygen to each and every cell and bringing back waste products to be disposed of. 

     Cardio or aerobic exercise increases elasticity of blood vessels, keeping them working efficiently and even enhances muscular performance. Around twenty minutes is the basal time that it takes to start fat burning (before that you’re using up stored glucose,) so if you carve out at least 30 - 45 minutes in your day (especially if you have weight or health issues), then here’s what cardio starts doing for you:

  • Improves your quality of life and experience of health within the very first week!
  • Mobilizes abdominal and other body fat, revs up your metabolism and makes the body burn fat for energy even when not exercising.
  • Keeps your heart and entire circulatory system young, clean and healthy, lowering your risk of heart disease.
  • Impels the body to utilise glucose more efficiently leading to lowered risk of Diabetes.
  • Defends DNA against damage, minimizing your risk of developing cancer especially of the colon and breast.
  • Increases stamina and vitality.
  • Strengthens your immune system –you fall ill much less frequently.
  • Lengthens your life span and enhances your quality of life even in your golden years!
  • Causes your body to produce endorphins giving you a positive outlook, boosts mood, reduces stress, enhances self esteem and to a large extent, protects from depression.
     Some people prefer working out indoors. Some forms of Cardio that would work for them are jumping rope and aerobics (step aerobics too). Equipment based exercises such as treadmill, exercise cycle, elliptical or a rowing machine are effective options - commit to using them regularly for the purpose they were designed instead of just to hang laundry. Dancing is also an aerobic exercise provided it is vigorous enough - Freestyle or doing your own thing is fun, exhilarating and a great stress buster. Dancing along with the kids or your spouse is even better for bonding! Learning dance from a professional is great because you burn more calories and are taught how to warm up, cool down, stretch, etc. 

     Exercising outdoors gives you the advantage of fresh air and greenery. Nothing beats walking! If you've never exercised before, this is the safest way to build stamina. Sauntering, wandering, talking to your companion, being occupied with your surroundings or thoughts is not effective - you need to focus on putting one foot in front of the other at a very brisk pace for it to be useful for your health. I find this is easier when I'm counting the number of steps I am taking.

     When you’ve been walking for a week or two, you can include a minute of jogging or running for every ten minutes of walking – incorporating bursts of high intensity exercise during a moderately vigorous routine even if it’s running, swimming, cycling or skipping improves heart efficiency and enhances fat burning. 

     Jogging and running are only differentiated by pace and slight modification of posture and stance. Both are effective but if you're overweight by more than 10 - 15 kilos, get a doctor's approval before you attempt them. There's a lot of debate as to whether to land on the ball of the foot, the middle or the heel. Experts say, do what feels natural to you.

     Playing a sport especially a racquet sport keeps your heart fit. Athletics and kick-boxing too. Unfortunately table tennis (I played for my school team), chess and billiards don't count.....

     Swimming regularly does wonders for all your muscles involved in movement – it is a whole body strength and CARDIO workout and is great for people with arthritis or injuries. Even if you do it once a week, apart from your other regular physical activity, you can reap the benefits.
So dust off that bicycle in your garage, buy some swimming trunks or track pants and good running shoes and START!

Wait......Some ground rules:

  • Consult your doctor- especially if you have any medical conditions.
  • Be safe - get advice on posture, when to stop, and what not to do from experts (the internet is a good resource but there's nothing as good as personal coaching).
  • Find something that you can fit into your daily routine – start slowly and gradually increase your pace / speed and intensity.
  • Keep yourself motivated and be committed – exercise is a lifelong activity though it’s forms may vary.
  • Be adventurous - try different activities

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', July 14th, 2012.

Deferred Gratification.......Implementation

Continuing to look at DG from a health perspective.....     

     Let’s say you’re out for a movie and you consume the popcorn, nachos, cola and muffins available. You’re also missing your workout for the day since the movie timing clashes with it. This is ‘right now’ behaviour where the objective is the food. Instead, make the movie the reward, not the food. By planning in advance (because 99% of food available outside is unhealthy) –maybe pack salad veggies, oil-free khakras, homemade low fat popcorn and some fruits – you have not only prepared healthy snacks but by eating several low calorie and healthy snacks, you don’t feel like you’re ‘sacrificing’ or ‘missing out’. Finish your work out earlier, even if it’s for half the duration, so that you walk into the theatre knowing you earned it. This is one example of how delayed gratification can be implemented.

     What if you’ve just been diagnosed with Diabetes and you have a “sweet tooth” (there is no such thing really – it’s just an addiction to the sweet taste). Staying away from sugary foods, watching your carbohydrate intake, cutting out the rest of the junk because you have a higher tendency to develop heart disease too and exercising to lose that excess flab around your midriff – are some of the things it will take to live a healthy life with minimal if not nil medication.

     Here’s where context becomes all important. I said earlier ‘These kids held the bigger reward to be more important than immediate gratification’ – What does being healthy for life really look like? Limitless energy, being productive and accomplishing what you want and need to on a daily basis? No hospital stays and therefore having more money available (since you’re not spending on meds or doctor consultations)? Having more of those ‘Kodak moments’ with your family and smiling a lot because you feel confident, strong and powerful? Wearing whatever clothes you like without having to hide aspects of your physique that you’re not happy with? Being happy in your own skin, knowing that you are truly ‘healthy’? Find a compelling ‘reason’ to commit to the long haul and keep reminding yourself of it.

     Coming back to your children, start giving them tests of patience. Give them regular pocket money and create a game around saving up to buy something they really want. Important: don’t forbid / restrict / ban anything – they’ll end up wanting it more. Also, never (notice I just banned it – does that make you want to do it?) use food or treats as bribes or rewards– ever! Educate them on why it’s not good to have unhealthy food often – let them know that they definitely will get a treat once in a fortnight or a month and have them wait for it. This takes time and patience on your part as well.

     Here’s the good news. If you or your child hasn’t fully developed the ability to defer gratification, you can always start practising it anytime. Whatever age you start, you can still be a master at this skill and your world view will start to shift. Science says habits are so difficult to break because doing something repeatedly develops response pathways in the brain so that you become efficient at it. Changing these neural pathways is tough but you can override them and create new pathways. Simply put, you can train your brain to delay gratification. Here are some exercises to do:

1] Take one area of life daily where you can practise this – a clue would be to see where you lose your patience easily.

2] Observe your children – you can perform your own version of the ‘marshmallow test’ if they’re young. Research this topic online and see how you can instil discipline and patience in them.

3] Observe how you react to your impulses - take a deep breath and ask yourself whether it is a 'want' or an actual need. If it is just a wish, examine the probable consequences and determine whether giving in is really worth it.

4] Set clear long term and short term goals that really matter to you.

5] In accordance with these, create hourly or daily to-do lists. After accomplishing each item – acknowledge yourself. Appreciating and accepting yourself positively reinforces this practice.

6] Visualize clearly the benefits and positive experiences that come from accomplishing these goals.

7] Keep a journal / diary and track your progress – it can capture your to-do lists as well as capture your successes that day.

8] Meditate – observe your own inner dialogue and how it sometimes is your inner enemy.

     Having said all this, I feel the need to define what deferred gratification IS NOT. It is not depriving yourself of the simple joys of life to the extent you are too watchful, cautious or defer every pleasure or experience for later. That extreme is called ‘stress’. That vacation or family time together is required – work for it. It is not sacrificing anything. Take the time to smell the roses and give in to the odd harmless impulse.  It is also definitely not a reason to procrastinate or delay taking action to accomplish something that needs to be done now. You’ve got to strike a balance between living in the moment, enjoying your life, taking decisive action right now, and still positively planning for the future.

Deferred Gratification....The Significance for Gen Y and everyone else

I interrupt the series on whole grains to post a few articles that were published quite some time ago. Never fear, I promise to post some recipes soon.

     Today’s world has become all about speed. The need or expectation that everything will be done at the click of a button, instantly. Let’s face it, today’s technology has brought down the time we spend on mundane chores like paying bills, banking and shopping. While this may be a good thing, children growing up in this age perceive the world differently. ‘Patience is a virtue’ was a chant we often heard from our elders. Generation X, Y and in future, Z need to develop this not just to function well in life but also to make life smooth for those around them.

     Deferred (or delayed) gratification is the ability to wait to obtain something that one wants. This is now recognised as an invaluable life skill which has consequences for adults of all ages too. This quality determines your ability to stick to long term goals and resist temptation. An inability to delay gratification is closely linked to development of food, drug and alcohol addictions. Such a person acts impulsively, thus making life for others around them difficult.

     It all started with a Stanford behavioural experiment – a researcher sat 4 year old children singly in a room, asked him/her to choose their favourite treat from a tray of sweets and told them that they were going to be left alone with the treat for a few minutes. If they waited till he (the researcher) came back, they would get 2 treats. If they wanted to eat it however, all they had to do was press a bell and the researcher would come back immediately and then they could eat it. This was pure science – no expectations, just to see which mental processes were involved in delaying gratification. What was interesting was only a third of the children held out for those few minutes for double the treat. Most could not resist the temptation to lick, bite or entirely polish off the treat.

     Relevantly, the successful strategies used by the kids who successfully ‘deferred their gratification’ were - distracting oneself, focusing on something else and avoiding looking at or thinking about the treat. These kids held the bigger reward to be more important than immediate gratification. This means these kids (and they were just 4 yrs old) had the cognitive ability to control their thoughts.

     The study would have ended there except for Walter Mischel, the researcher who started what is now popularly known as ‘The Marshmallow Experiment’, having daughters who had also participated in the study along with schoolmates. From their assessment years later of their friends’ academic performance, Mischel realised that the ‘delayers’ were doing much better in academics and socially too. Whereas the kids who couldn’t wait as 4 year olds had difficulty focusing on school work, leading to poorer performance. These children also were less confident socially and exhibited impulsive behaviour. Now, those kids are in their 40’s and still being tracked – the ‘waiters’ are doing better financially, career – wise and socially.

     I’m not going to go into this study in depth – the results and their application in daily life are what I’m dealing with here. Let’s look at these results from a perspective of caring for one’s own well being.  Someone who practises deferred gratification will readily set and fulfil long term health goals, resist the temptation of unhealthy foods and follow an exercise regimen – no matter how challenging -  because of her / his commitment to a positive ‘bigger picture’.

     Someone who’s in for immediate gratification might have difficulty doing all this since he / she would not even be thinking long term – only the ‘now’ matters. Such people have no real control over their life and fail to plan sufficiently for the future.

     The definition of ‘reward’ itself differs from person to person. Let’s look at ‘instant’ rewards – food treats, toys, eye-catching bling that you have to have, that budget breaking luxury car, etc. There are of course many more. How about ‘long-term’ rewards? Life-long wellness and productive golden years? Wealth creation? Building a successful business? Sounds good but also feels like too much hard work is involved - one of the main reasons people take the easy way out.

     From a health perspective, making changes in our eating and lifestyle take time and need to last a lifetime. There has to be a long term commitment to produce results. Once those results (ideal body weight, low waist size, improved fitness and stamina, reduction of risk factors, restoration of health, etc.) are achieved, if you go back to immediate gratification, all your efforts are undone.

This subject is continued in the next post.

An edited version of this article was published in 'Life in Adyar', July 28th, 2012.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Whole Grains......... Part 2

     This post is not about the specific benefits of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients naturally, abundantly present in whole grain cereals and pulses. That these are beneficial to your child's and your own long term health is beyond question. In fact, science tells us that a diet comprised of multiple whole grains immediately improves digestion, lowers bad cholesterol levels in blood, is better for your liver, boosts immunity, keeps your blood glucose levels stable and cuts your risk of most non- communicable disease, thereby increasing your lifespan.

     No, I am demolishing the myth that the typical South Indian diet, in it's current form, is healthy. Take a typical day's breakfast – idlis, dosas or pongal - made from white rice or take rava upma, all doused with oil or even ghee. Lunch - a significant quantity of white rice, sambar, rasam or curry. Dal or pulses may not even feature in a meal. A small serving of vegetables if any (because 'what do we eat it with?'). Maybe a salad and a bit of buttermilk or curd (not necessarily low fat). Maybe murukku, mixture or even biscuits at snack time. Dinner can be more or less the same as lunch or just tiffin items and may not contain a regular protein dish. So, refined grains are not just a part of our daily diet – they are the predominant component.

    White rice and other refined grains are the root of our nation’s health evils. One of the biggest myths is that we need them. Until just a few generations ago, our ancestors ate hand-pounded, unpolished rice apart from other whole grains (almost nothing was highly polished or refined, not even sugar). They were intensely active and lived a long healthy life.

Some of the ill effects of eating refined grains including white rice everyday are:
  • Poor digestion and even constipation. Development of piles, hernias, etc.
  • Insulin resistance – reduced responsiveness of our cells to insulin, leading to Diabetes.
  • Lack of essential nutrients for basic body processes
  • Sluggish metabolism leading to weight gain, especially around the abdomen. This in turn leads to increased risk for a host of problems including heart disease.
  • Syndrome X or the Metabolic Syndrome – an outcome of this syndrome is non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), abnormal blood lipids and high uric acid levels in blood – affecting the liver, heart and kidney.
  • Low energy levels, higher frequency of food cravings and addictions – bingeing – leading to even more weight gain.

     'Going Whole Grain' simply means replacing white rice, maida, rava, white bread and other refined carbohydrate foods with whole grain ones. So foods you start avoiding are white rice, rava, parboiled white rice (in dosas and idlis), instant noodles, most biscuits, naans, kulchas and rumali rotis. Bakery products are also mostly made with maida. Check food labels and remember ‘wheat flour’ still is maida.

     Examples of whole grains to start using are Millets (ragi, navane, saame, bajra, jowar, etc.), Brown and Red rice, Oats and Quinoa. Replacing your regular dals with whole grams / pulses or split ones with skin is the next step. It is best to cut consumption of even whole wheat as it has been proven to damage intestinal health. Diabetics especially would profit from this elimination in their diet. 

     Acclimatize yourself and the family to whole grains in small quantities. Usually, these are well tolerated, however, if anyone is showing signs of indigestion, mix whole grains and usually used grains initially to give them time to adjust (ex: Jowar flour can be mixed with atta to make phulkas, red rice can be mixed with white in a ratio of 1:1). Even then, all whole grains might not suit everyone - select the ones that work for  your family and use those. 

     Half measures of including whole grains on a weekly basis are now the norm in many households. However, nothing less than switching over to whole grains on a daily basis will have long term benefits for your family. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid refined grains for the rest of your life – just use them much less frequently – once in a fortnight or month, cooked healthily and in small quantities along with other nutritious foods. Try this path and you will see immediate as well as long term benefits. This is not a fad diet, it’s for life.

The recipes in the following posts demonstrate how easily one can incorporate whole grains into daily cooking and tickle the family's taste buds at the same time. Enjoy the earthy and natural flavours of these foods. These are just an example of different types of dishes, feel free to experiment and share your creations and results with me. All grains mentioned in the recipes are now available regularly in super markets. If not, try your local organic store.

An edited version of this post was published in 'Parent Circle', August, 2012.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Whole Grains ......Part 1

     My journey with whole grains started when I moved back to Bangalore in mid - 2009. I was inspired by my Aunt's implementation of a completely whole grain regimen (no white rice) at her home. In our circle, several families including my own are now completely on whole grains. Anyway, back to Bangalore - I was excited at the idea of cooking for myself and experimenting with whole grains. Dinner was no problem. I was creative and what I cooked was low fat, filling and nutritious, not to mention really tasty.

     Breakfast and Lunch were usually at corporate cafeterias and therefore I consumed mostly refined grains - white rice. Breakfast was almost always Idli and then along with the 2 chapathis at lunch there was rice too (I wasn't aware of the consequences). I was closer to 50 kilos during this period. I wasn't exercising - I didn't have the energy for it at the end of the day and I justified this by saying that I walked all over the various campuses that I visited, anywhere between 2 - 5 kilometers a day (including distance from desk to cafeteria / kitchen). 

     Early in 2011, I met Mr. Right, we set a date and then one and a half months before the big day, my Father passed away. There was shock and grief - I wasn't really watching what I ate (and loads of fried stuff is usually made at those ceremonies that follow). Then after that, my wedding - I was trying to be healthy at this point but still. I was in a funk for around 3 months where I just had nothing to really motivate me to eat better. I was adjusting to life in a new city (Chennai), unclear about what the future held, holding on to my grief .

     The wake up call came around November last year when I underwent a complete medical check-up. I did this more so that my family would get it done too but was secretly worried about my health. It turned out my total cholesterol levels were clinically defined as borderline - 206mg / dL (to me that's high). Accompanying this worrying number were my abnormal liver enzyme counts. This indicated that something was wrong with this vital organ. What probably had occurred (I didn't get an ultrasound done) was accumulation of fat on the liver. In the beginning  this is not serious but, as the deposition of fat continues, interferes with it's normal functioning hence the abnormal liver enzyme results. Unchecked, this leads to other complications and even liver failure can result. It's called Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

     That report was exactly what I needed at this point - we never realise the value of our health till we are threatened with the loss of it. Eating refined grains, eating out and injudicious consumption of other unhealthy foods (also, mainly made from refined flour) was the source of my health breakdown. 

     I said to myself 'Enough of being irresponsible, I've got to walk the talk' - discussed it with my Mother-in-Law and Husband (who have been extremely supportive and interested in their own health) and started procuring organic whole grains from a nearby eco-outlet. There's been no turning back - we are now in love with the earthy flavour of brown and red rice, millets and whole pulses and wonder how we could have ever thought white rice so delicious. We procure other organic kitchen staples like spices, dry fruits and honey too. 

     The creative effort that both of us (myself and Mom-in-Law) put into the whole thing has been richly rewarding. We've been experimenting with traditional Tamilian recipes made with whole grains. My cholesterol was down to 160 mg / dL this May. Her cholesterol also was lower when tested shortly after and the biggest victory was when my husband recently went through the check for the first time ever and his lipid levels, blood pressure and everything else were in the 'healthy' range. 

     I had been exercising on and off for the last 6 years - it was back 'on' regularly after this. In fact I now work out at least 5 times a week and do a mixture of cardio and strength (at home and our neighbourhood park). I weigh in at 47.5 - 48 kilos (my ideal body weight) and my fat percentage has come down as well. All in all, I'm eating nutrient dense foods, exercising and loving my life!

Click on this link,

Look at the 'Videos' column on the left of your page. Click on the image of whole grains and view the video.


Go to the link, click on the 'Articles and Videos' Link at top, click on 'Videos', click on the title  'Switching to whole grains' and view.


click below for the direct link to vimeo

It takes a long time to load so just let it load fully while you're doing other stuff. Let me know what you think.

     My own impression is that I was incoherent in this video, I've typed out above what I would have actually shared had there been 5 - 10 mins instead of 2.

Because Friends Matter.......

     This Friendship Day, take a good, long, close look at your dearest friends, the ones whose ideas, words and actions influence (maybe even inspire) you. They are the ones that make it all worthwhile and sometimes are the sole reason you make it through the day in one piece. Treasure them, make a difference to them. Did you know the biggest gift you could give them tomorrow is the gift of HEALTH?

     It’s called the ‘Halo Effect’. Scientists first started using this term on observing patients recovering from bariatric (weight loss) surgery and their families. While making changes in their eating habits and lifestyle, these patients influenced family members to follow suit – to make healthy changes and lose excess weight. This term is also used with a negative connotation - that obesity spreads like a virus through social connections. In other words, gaining weight is ‘infectious’.

     As a nutritionist, I’ve noticed that groups of friends or family members have a similar tendency to either be obese, overweight or normal weight. I’ve also noticed that if my client is obese, then the odds are very high that one or more members of the family are as well. The funny thing is you don’t even have to be meeting these friends or family members often. People you love, even if at a distance can influence you and your weight (though science says this must be a really close connection).

     Friends who hang out together tend to eat the same kind of food and have more or less the same activity level, so do family members – this is the logical assumption. So, when you’re taking that long, close look at your friends, ask yourself if their weight is OK for their height? Consider your shared time – do you spend it eating in the college canteen / cool coffee hangout or do you hang out on the beach, throwing a Frisbee / playing football or cricket? For those of us not in school or college anymore – our colleagues are our daily social group – same question. Or maybe you are a homemaker – do you hang out with friends at home – even bigger chances of indulging and sitting around?

     Consider when friends drop in for a visit – what do you serve? Fried stuff, sweets or processed foods (or all the above)? Although this is ‘traditional’, you’ve got to feel for those poor friends of yours visiting and issuing invitations to their child’s wedding – how much junk food would they be forced to consume in a single day of making these rounds? Or maybe this has happened to you? Healthier serving options are fruits, dry fruits and nuts, hurigadle (recipe coming soon) and so on (be creative). Would people anticipating the junk and instead being served these healthy snacks be scornful? Maybe, but you could always explain and educate!

     Coming to what happens when one person in a social group starts on the path to health - there is a significant ripple effect. When your friends see you start to make healthy food and activity choices, they may initially even make fun of you. This is just because people don’t like change and they’re probably worried that what they were doing all this time was wrong (and feel guilty that they aren’t taking care of their own health). This ribbing will continue only until you stand up for yourself and your health.

     You can take it all in a positive spirit, retain your good humour and EDUCATE them. Eventually, when they realise that you are committed to your health goals (and see the results you are producing), they’ll come around and start their own journey to lasting health. If some are still closed to the idea, maybe even skip the time with them that they want to spend eating unhealthily or lounging around. That way you don’t lose out on your friendship plus you get to enjoy the benefits of enhanced well being. You may even find yourself making new friends, those who are on the same path.

Imagine what that would be like – your friends are then truly there for the long haul and so are you!
Wish you all the best in making HEALTH contagious.....

This article was published in 'Life in Adyar', Chennai -  August 4th, 2012.

I'm posting this a little late but wish all my family and friends a very happy friendship day nonetheless - I'm here for you guys  :)