Friday, January 30, 2009

A Chocolate Diet: A Sweet Spot in Budget-Conscious Times

In these stressful economic times, people seem to be cutting corners on their nutrition. McDonald's has reported strong fourth-quarter results in 2008 and alas, are opening another 650 franchises in 2009. When one Big Mac consists of more than a day's worth of fat and sodium intake, you can see how worrisome this news can be.

But another food area that appears to be booming has more promise. Chocolate sales are rising. While there is some dispute over which areas of the industry (inexpensive bars or premium chocolate) are rocking out, fingers crossed that it is the dark chocolate that will win out. If chocolate is 70 percent cacao or higher, you're actually helping your heart--and possibly your waist line! Here's why:

Chocolate is basically derived from beans of cacao trees so they're plant-based just like broccoli and squash. This means they're full of fiber, health-promoting antioxidants and other promising natural compounds.

These antioxidants, called flavanols, hold a huge array of health benefits. For example, a recent Hypertension journal article found that chocolate's flavanols may help regulate blood sugar production--preventing the spikes that can cause overeating. In addition, the fiber-rich dark chocolate can actually make you feel satiated as long as a small apple.

Chocolate's flavanols also seem to increase circulation, according to Dr. Ralph Felder, author of The Bonus Years Diet. Better blood flow means increased circulation to the brain to keep you alert. It also gives us a younger complexion because an increased blood flow boosts collagen levels to thwart the production of wrinkle-causing free radicals. Finally, it deters artery-clogging clots that can cause heart attacks.

The dark stuff also seems to have feel-good chemicals. Neuroscientists at the University of California found that chocolate contains a chemical called anandamides that give us an ego boost and more self-confident.

Finally, chocolate also has the healthful MUFA (monounsaturated fat) like olive oil. This means that all those studies that are showing how trimming the Mediterranean diet is for our tummies includes the nutrients of dark chocolate.

Just make sure you stick to the darkest kinds for guilt-free snacking. They're way less processed than lighter chocolates and have none of the fattening dairy that milk chocolate is rich in.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What Does an Athlete's Body Look Like?

Awkward gym moment: I jump into a seemingly generic Body Sculpt class the other day at my club. I take a cue from the other participants and grab a bevy of gear (a step, 1 pair of 3 lb dumbbells, a body bar and a mat) that I figure we're using in the class. I follow the teacher's regimen (dead lifts, push-ups, squats, bicep curls, etc.) to a T, yet it seems like he's paying extra attention to me as if I'm doing the exercises wrong. He's fussing with my form, lifting an elbow or pressing on my deltoids.

So I try harder and man, I start to sweat. Next to up the cardio, he directs us all to leave the studio, run down and back up the 4 flights of stairs to the room.  And it's upon my return that he confronts me at the doorway with a heavier body bar and says, "Unless you're wearing hot-pink underwear, you should be using a heavier one." What I want to say is: "I tend to develop muscles easily so I think lighter weights and more repetitions make me leaner than the heavier weights. And wha... about my panties?" But when a 6'4" teacher is talking about mine and pushing a pole in my face, I forget all of this. 

Afterwards, Instructor comes over to me and ask my name. Then he starts asking me how long I've gone to that gym. Then he asks what kind of workouts I do. It's all awkward, I admit, but also makes me curious. "I run and do Pilates most," I say. "But what does it look like I do?" "You look like you swim," says Instructor after a once-over. "Actually, you just look like an athlete."

Sexual harassment aside, this makes me smile. What does an athlete's body look like? Is it Kara Goucher's? Venus Williams? Or does an athletic female's physique also include J.Lo's? She recently finished a triathalon--something I haven't accomplished. Yet. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Catherine's Fishy Diet

Catherine Zeta Jones looks skinnier than ever these days. Maybe I'll have what she's having:

When the 38-year-old Welsh-born actress is craving the fish-and-chips she grew up on, she piles slices of smoked-salmon on black bread and tops it with as many crushed potato chips as she can make in a sandwich. "No mayo or cream cheese," she told The Little Black Book of Hollywood Diet Secrets. "I promise you--it's delicious!"

But the real secret to this diet tip is remembering to indulge in your favorite foods smartly. Abstaining completely from the salty or sweet snacks you love most is a recipe--for diet disaster. Go Catherine!

Crumby Fitness

Even in the dead of winter when the temperature barely goes above 30 degrees and running outside is a near impossibility for me, I still think running on a treadmill in your own home is like eating in bed--crumby. 

I don't care how convenient it may appear to have a huge, heavy piece of workout equipment steps away. The act of getting up and going to a separate place or environment is an important aspect of motivation. Who wants to be reminded 24/7 that they're not working out? And carving a special time and place to run (or for that matter eat) is a vital part of positive conditioning. For a long time, studies have shown that people who eat on the run (or for that matter, in bed!) consume more calories than those who sit at a proper tablesetting. Now an Annals of Behavioral Medicine study has shown that those who own home gyms workout 12 percent less often than those go to a club.

Don't get me wrong. I do have some beloved fitness items at home. Granted these are more for rehab than waist-reduction, but here are my top 3:

1. My Sacrowedgy: For anyone who gets lower back pain or hip stiffness like me, this hot-pink plastic wedge is better than any NSAID. Just lie on the triangular pad with it placed at the base of your spine for 20 minutes and in no time, your hips are open and relaxed. Just support your back and hips by tightening your abs when you get up from it. This passive stretch releases your muscles farther than you think and you don't want to tweak anything when you're too loose.

2. My Stick: Save $95 on a sports massage and rub out those knots yourself with this surprisingly effective apparatus. Tight muscles are the recipe for injury and nothing sucks more than the will to workout--but a pulled muscle to prevent you. This slightly bendable stick has moveable rings on it that loosen up knots and tight muscle areas quickly. My IT band has thanked me for it.

3. My Foam Roller: It looks like a flotation device but really this roller can serve a few different purposes. You can roll on it like The Stick. By applying gentle pressure to certain irritated muscles, it offers "myofascial release" and makes muscles more pliable again. Or, you can just lie on it to stretch your back and neck muscles. This is my favorite passive stretch on the roller. Just make sure your head and lower spine are aligned on the roller and then splay your legs and arms over the sides. After a hard day at work or a hard run, nothing feels closer to floating on air than the foam roller. (Maybe there is something to the "flotation" analogy after all)....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cuckoo for Coconuts

For the record, I don't care about her on-off affair with John Mayer, her fertility or how "uncool" she thinks Angelina is. But what I am here to dissect are Jennifer Aniston's amazing abs. Her diet has a lot to do with keeping her body weight down. But now I've been hearing that she's been also cooking a lot with metabolism-boosting coconut oil to keep her BMI so low.

Cherie Calbom, the author The Coconut Diet, has been rocking the hard sell of these hard shelled tropical nuts for years. And to be honest, I'm not exactly sure of the validity of the science behind the claim that coconut oil is good for your waist line. Though a saturated fat, the fatty acids in the oil are "medium" chain molecules so they don't have the same effect on our triglycerides and cholesterol as bad transfats. Okay, fine; they are safe for your heart.  But good for a diet? I can only make the leap that they're just like MUFAs (e.g. olive oil) and just digest slowly in your stomach so they keep you full for longer...

But while we're on coconuts, here's a product that's totally work a second look: Coconut WATER. It has a light, refreshing taste and is so chockful of potassium that it apparently hydrates more efficiently than Gatorade. For me, after a hard workout, I find it as satisfying as any sugary drink that replenishes electrolytes--but in far less calories. Now that's a product I can believe in.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Footwear Fabulous

Trust us. These boots aren't really that f-ugly. Besides, after you overcome their aesthetic challenge and hefty-ish price, you'll love how they blend fashion with fitness. How? They're MBTs, a brand of shoe that mimics the effect of walking barefoot on sand or any other unstable surface has on your abs, posture and booty. In other words, they basically work on the same principles as other balancing gear like the Bosu. But since these shoes come in a variety of styles, from sports to professional (like above), you can sneak in extra toning time while you're doing your errands or at work. 

Gold Standard?

The Gold's Gym on West 54th Street used to be one of the best kept gym secrets of Midtown West residents. It's just about open at all hours (unlike the local Equinox that's closed on Sunday. Why? Why?) and filled with members who are seriously invested in their bodies (think actors, models, strippers). And clientele like that can always help inspire a lagging workout. But these two problems above are hard to ignore:

Exhibit A: Don't all gyms have steam rooms closed by the Board of Health for 8 months or so?

Exhibit B: There's the never-ending construction... and the day workers who love to ogle while you're climbing the elliptical trainers. Yuck.

So I'm thinking these warrant a breakup with Gold's?