Reboot.

Dear friends,

beets

My “gut reboot” is complete and, as promised, I’m here to tell you about it.

(Because what’s the point of self-improvement if there’s no one to tell, right?)

When my friend Patti told me about the plan (and the book), I was skeptical. A 21-day cleanse sounded about as much fun as a 21-day root canal. Perhaps she caught me at a weak moment. I had just fallen off the treadmill a day earlier. (This was a literal treadmill accident, not a fall “off the wagon” so to speak.)  I was feeling particularly old and vulnerable. And bad.

The thing about feeling bad is — like the frog in the proverbial pot of hot water — you don’t know how bad you feel until you don’t feel bad anymore. Headaches, sleepiness, lethargy, persistent GI distress . . . I chalked it all up to age and stress.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal. Until it wasn’t.

I started to feel better by day 3 of the cleanse. By day 10, I was really grooving. Now I’m all but a few days away from a month and I have no intention of stopping.

I’ve only had one headache the whole time. I’ve had ZERO stomach/GI issues. My energy is improving daily. Mr. Mom said my skin looks clearer, younger. (I’ll take it!) My “brain fog” has finally cleared. With the exception of two late nights worrying about my kids’ trouble du jour, my sleep has been uninterrupted and restful. My running and weight training are improving. (In fairness, fitness breeds fitness so I’m not trying to suggest eating better has made me fitter; but I’m certain feeling better and having more energy has improved my exercise.) I’ve lost 10 pounds. All in all, it’s been a 21-day boon.

If there’s a downside, it’s that eating is no longer easy. It takes planning and preparation to eat healthy. You guys know I’m a pretty decent cook and baker and I’m having to learn new ways and new ingredients. I’m in unfamiliar territory but gaining my footing daily.

My transition to a plant-based diet has been a slow evolution since I officially became a vegetarian a year ago. Still, forgoing meat is relatively easy, especially if — like me — you rely on packaged and convenience foods. The beauty of this cleanse is that it helped me break my reliance on convenience foods. First, I came to realize that “cheese tots” or “chips and dip” really aren’t a lunch option I should consider a viable option as a vegetarian. Second, it broke me of my reliance on cheese and crackers or PBJs as totally acceptable dinners (or breakfasts, or snacks). Third, it helped me understand that life goes on (and goes on well) without refined carbs and dairy.

I am reluctant to call myself a vegan now, though I’m still not eating dairy. The premise of “Clean Gut” is that you eat a very restricted diet for 21 days (no dairy, no gluten, no caffeine, no alcohol, with other restrictions on many fruits and starchy foods like potatoes, rice and corn). At the end of the cleanse, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods and test your reaction. I have successfully reintroduced gluten, but I’m only eating limited amounts of oatmeal and whole grain bread. I may try whole grain pasta later but, so far, I haven’t missed pasta one bit. I reintroduced potatoes last night (with a vegan mashed potatoes recipe I found online) and found that even the cleaned up version sat really heavy on my stomach. While I experienced no major GI distress as a result, I realized I no longer enjoy eating foods that prompt an “ugh” after dinner. I still need to “reintroduce and test” dairy and corn, but I’m in no hurry. I feel so good I’m staying the course.

Speaking of ugh, the best habit this cleanse helped me form is to quit eating when I’m 80% full. I have to admit, when I first read this advice in the book, the concept was lost in translation. I’m a clean-your-plate girl. Always have been. I know what full feels like but I have no idea what 8/10ths full means. Almost full? Not quite full? Still hungry? Hungry I know!

Despite being fuzzy on the concept, I gave it my best. For someone as lost as me, someone who knows what the hour after the Thanksgiving meal or Pizza Night feels like but has no idea what it means to stop eating before you are satiated, the best I can describe it is this: Stop when you still want more. Stop before you are ready to stop eating.

Stop before you are ready to stop eating.

This advice is not just about stopping. Although that’s hard enough to do. It’s also about how much to put on your plate to begin with. Recalibrating what constitutes a meal. As a young girl, a meal meant two helpings of everything. As an adult, it has meant excessively large portions (and still sometimes helping myself to seconds).

If you’ve ever done any reading on this topic, you likely already know it takes your brain 20 minutes to catch up with your stomach. Meaning — if you eat until your stomach feels full, 20 minutes later you will feel over-full. Over-full became my full. Which is why “less than full” has been so perplexing to me.

But I’m learning. And in the mean time, I’m having fun exploring new websites and cookbooks and recipes. I’ve had a couple of fantastic vegan successes (like the lasagna I featured here) and I’ve had at least one spectacular fail (a vegan “meatloaf” we shall never speak of again). Kudos to my boys for taking it all in stride.

With gratitude {for the chance, daily, to remake my life in healthier, happier terms},

Joan, who purchased the poster pictured above because it reminded her of Mr. Mom — who’s been an exceptionally good sport about eating more vegetables for the last year — and because he really does make her heart flutter

PS: I invite you to check out the websites of the books pictured below to learn more about a plant-based diet

books

Click here for Clean Gut

Click here for the Kind Diet

Click here for Oh She Glows

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More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

lasagna (1)

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

***

Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.

Heartbreak in the grocery aisle.

Dear friends,

I think it’s obvious that food has been on my mind lately. A lot.

Clearly, food being on my mind is what led to the cleanse. And now that I’m a full five weeks into the cleanse, food is on my mind for a different set of reasons. Some of the conclusions I’ve drawn are what I expected; others have surprised me. I thought I would share these thoughts with you — and the easiest way to do so is with a list. Er, two lists actually.

What I miss:

  1. Cheese: Cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese! I miss cheese so much I can’t describe the feeling. I knew I would, and I was right. And the craving for cheese and the enjoyment of cheese hasn’t diminished one bite. Er, bit. I haven’t cut cheese out entirely, but I estimate I’m eating about 20% of the volume of cheese I used to eat. I no longer eat cheese every day. And a typical serving is now 1 oz. In case I haven’t said it, I love cheese. I miss cheese. Cheese broke my heart. And is there anything more tragic than heartbreak in the grocery aisle?
  2. Wine: I haven’t given up wine entirely, but I’ve really limited my intake. As much as I enjoy it, I remind myself it’s liquid (empty) calories. And it’s hard to drink wine without craving cheese. They’re the devil’s duo in my life.
  3. Crunchy, packaged snack foods: Cheetos, Doritos, Pita Chips, Pretzels, Fritos, Triscuits, Pork Rinds, Saltines . . . you name it, if it crunches and comes in a package, I miss it. I crave it. Whereas I have managed to moderate my cheese intake, I can’t be trusted around the salty, crunchy stuff. I don’t go near it. Can’t. I know you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy comfort and it comes in a Pringles can.

What I don’t miss:

  1. Butter: I can’t believe I’m saying this. I love butter, always have. But giving it up has been one of the easiest transitions to healthier eating I’ve ever made. Haven’t missed it for a single second.
  2. Sugar and sweets: Just like butter. I simply don’t need sugar and never find myself craving it. Once you give it up, you realize how naturally sweet many vegetables and legumes are. Or, maybe I was born with a cheese tooth instead of a sweet tooth. Whatever it is, I’m doing fine without sugar. I miss baking. Actually, I miss baking a lot. But sugar? Not at all.
  3. Salad dressings: There are so many hidden calories and weird ingredients in most commercial salad dressings. I gave it up immediately in favor of a teaspoon each of olive oil and red wine vinegar. Now, I don’t even need the oil. A sprinkle of vinegar allows the texture and flavor of salad greens to really shine and it’s amazing how much flavor exists in a salad if it’s not drowning in dressing. I’ll never go back.
  4. White rice and bread and pasta: This one really surprised me. I thought I would die without bread. And pasta. Guess what . . . I’m doing just fine. In five weeks, I’ve eaten one slice of bread and two small servings of pasta. And there have been no nervous breakdowns. Who knew?
  5. Huge portions of meat: I like to call myself a “flexitarian” because although I enjoy meat, I’ve never been a devoted carnivore. Four ounces a day has been easy breezy. And surprisingly, on the two occasions I’ve exceeded my daily limit, my gut has made sure I realized the error of my ways. Earlier this week I ate lunch at a nice cafe, where pan fried chicken livers were the daily special. In spite of the fact I knew they’d be breaded in white flour, I ordered them. And I really enjoyed every single bite. But you know what? Two ounces were all I needed to feel entirely satisfied.
  6. Huge portions of anything: I’ve been weighing all my food at home even though I’ve gotten really good at judging by eye. I’m truly surprised how satisfied I can be with four ounces of just about everything.
  7. 13 pounds: I can’t believe I’ve lost 13 pounds in five weeks. I’m astounded. And now I realize how much crap I was eating and what it does to my body.

I’m wondering if you find it interesting that there’s only three things I miss and seven things I don’t miss. I never made it past Algebra II, but I think the math is working in my favor on this one. Although, have I mentioned I miss cheese?

I’m also not missing a rigid adherence to arbitrary rules. I told you I’ve always had trouble with moderation. So I’m trying to do better about not sweating the small stuff. Last night, Mr. Mom and I went out for dinner at a very nice restaurant. I had salmon and risotto. The risotto was loaded with cheese and butter, but instead of fastidiously avoiding it, I ate a few bites. It was pretty good, I have to say. And since the salmon filet was huge — probably a good eight ounces — Mr. Mom got a second entrée with half of my salmon and most of my risotto. He thoroughly enjoyed it (in addition to his Italian sampler). By the way, I took two bites of his stuffed veal Florentine. It was oh-my-god good and I didn’t feel guilty for one second. That’s real progress, folks.

Today’s big meal is also about progress. I’m just betting you I can be happy with one small piece of fried chicken and no cake. Not that long ago, I wouldn’t have cooked such a meal in the midst of a cleanse mindset. Feast or famine, you know. But I enjoy cooking so very much (and my family enjoys my cooking so very much) that it seemed ridiculous not to do something we all love. And like I said, boiling brown rice and making vegetable soup just isn’t all that interesting.

So today I shall cook. And I shall eat. With joy and without guilt.

With gratitude {for moderation, blessed moderation},

Joan, who wants to make certain you know she misses cheese and always will

The cleanse.

Dear friends,

I mentioned in this post last week that I was going to use my vacation to get myself back on track, nutritionally speaking.

I showed you the photographic evidence that my pantry is stocked with junk.  And, dismayed by its effect on my figure, I wrote an ode to the ripening pear I have become. So starting a week ago yesterday, I vowed to turn over a new leaf — and I embarked on a “spring cleaning” of my diet.

Here’s what I’ve consumed for the last eight days:

  • fresh vegetables of many kinds
  • fresh fruit
  • brown rice and oatmeal
  • beans
  • and no more than 4 ounces of lean protein (including egg whites) a day

By the way, I’m not anti-meat. But by limiting myself to 4 ounces a day, I was enforcing a wider zone on my plate for vegetables and whole grains. It’s so tempting and so easy to fill up on meat (even lean meat) and I didn’t want to go the Atkins route.

I reduced my dairy intake dramatically by cutting out cheese and butter last week (I’ve been eating way too much for way too long).  I did put a teaspoon of cream in my morning cup of coffee and a tablespoon or two of milk in my oatmeal, but I’ve been a dairy hog for a long time so this has been a significant change.

Of course the biggest change has been 8 straight days of eating nothing out of a package, which — without intentionally trying — means I also eliminated all processed sugar. Plus, I banned the table salt because I wanted to remind myself what fresh food actually tastes like.

And what do I think?

Holy schmoley!

First off, I had a wicked headache for almost five straight days. I’m talking headaches that verged on migraines (without the vision disturbances) and that would not be tempered by over-the-counter pain killers. I went to bed with a headache, I woke up with a headache, I painted and cleaned with a headache. Finally, about mid-day on Thursday, it broke. I’m no physiologist, but I’m pretty sure my system was reacting violently to the  sudden and total elimination of processed sugar (and perhaps refined grains) from my diet.

Second, I lost 5 1/2 pounds, which is not the chief reason I did it, but boy — what a benefit!

Third, I immediately extinguished all heartburn, which had become a new and growing problem.

Finally, I just flat out feel better. I can’t explain it except to say my mind is clear (once I got past the crushing headache) and my digestive system has calmed and receded to the background (where it belongs) rather than being an omnipresent, roiling reminder of my excess.

I feel so good, I’m going to keep it up — though I’m not sure what that means. I’m sticking to the daily 4-ounce limit on protein because it encourages other good eating habits. And I’m going to stick to my low-dairy guns for at least a while longer. I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t revolve around cheese — or at least convince myself its proper place is as a condiment, not a food group. And I want to stay away from sugar and packaged foods as long as humanly possible. In my life, “humanly possible” has never been longer than about six months. So we’ll see.

The big unknown for me is bread and pasta. I know there are all sorts of healthier, whole-grain varieties out there. Heck, I have a grain mill and several buckets of whole grains in my basement and I can bake a loaf of whole wheat bread like nobody’s business. But bread and pasta are a slippery slope in my life. I have trouble controlling portions with these two foods, and I haven’t learned to consume them without drenching them in all sorts of unhealthy fats. So, I’m taking it slow in this area to see if I can moderate my gluttonous tendencies.

I mentioned to a friend that I was doing this and she said “Ouch. Sounds painful. I have absolutely no self-control. Good luck.”

If you’ve known me very long, you know I have self-control as secure as a bank vault. As long as it’s for a specified period of time. I have often said I have a self-control switch and I’m either on or off. I have struggled with moderation my entire life and I’d love to break my feast-or-famine mentality. (Ask my friends — I have yet to ease into anything in life.)

I started with a “cleanse,” which is clearly a famine strategy. Let’s see if I can turn my cleanse into cleaner living all around rather than a one-off laundering.

What say ye, dear readers? Any words of advice for this recovering foodaholic?

With gratitude {for so many wonderful culinary choices in life and a growing ability to select healthier ones},

Joan, who watched the “sugar is toxic” story on 60 Minutes Sunday night as a member of the Amen corner because if the five-day headache isn’t proof she doesn’t know what is