Quick review: “The Men’s Health Big Book of Food and Nutrition”

I’m a serial browser and an occasional reader, so with the vast number of pages I’ve quickly-flipped through running through my mind, I can hastily say that “The Men’s Health Big Book of Food and Nutrition” is the most essential book to weight loss I’ve come across yet.

Let me take a step back for one second. If I’m in a slump and feel like my diet is derailing, the first thing I immediately do to get back on track is calorie count. I’ve had stretches where I’ve logged every bite for months, and times where it’s only takes a few days of scrutiny to right the ship. But the most frustrating part of using a calorie counter (Calorie King and My Fitness Pal in my experience) is the ease of finding natural ingredients.

What I always wanted was a calorie counter that easily allowed me to build and store the stats of recipes I make at home. I can’t stand that these weight loss programs are faster at letting me know a Whopper with cheese contains 760 calories, 47 grams of fat and 1,450 mg of sodium. I already knew that was bad for me. How ’bout you help me figure out how good the food I’m making at home is?

And that’s where the “Big Book” excels–as a tool for those who have beat the fast food addiction and want to know more about what’s good for them.

What got me to purchase the book initially is the nearly 200-page pictionary of common fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts, grains, dairy, cheeses, oils, fats, spices, etc. You’ll learn the proper serving size, nutritional information and health benefits of a variety of foods. Because I weigh my food when cooking and serve on smaller plates to maintain portion size, knowing the proper serving sizes and their make-up has become key to maintaining portion control.

I was introduced to new ingredients and learned a ton of awesome tips and tricks to grocery shopping and kitchen work. (Ex: “Some poultry producers inject solutions into chicken breasts to make them juicier and more flavorful … but the tradeoff from plumping is a huge increase in sodium content”; “Eating grapefruit three times a day (or 8 oz. of fresh-squeezed juice three times a day) leads to significant weight loss … subjects dropped pounds even though they hadn’t deliberately altered any other part of their diet.”)

Guide aside, my other favorite part of the book is a glossary of food additives that describes the effects of messed up stuff like “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” “modified food starch” and “Yellow #6.”

For those just starting on the path to healthy eating and weight loss, the book also offers a handful of other essential chapters: the E-A-T-S nutritional plan (Eliminate added sugars; Add quality proteins; Trade starch for produce and whole grains; Stop fearing natural fat); a guide to getting started in the kitchen; and the “100 healthiest meals on the planet,” including wild mushroom pizza, summer clam chowder and chicken and pineapple sandwiches.

Check out one of those recipes, a moist and flavorful beef meatloaf, that my homeboy Kevin recently cooked for his blog Diet Accomplice.

If you’re struggling with weight loss, I suggest tackling the nutritional element before moving on to the physical element. If you don’t know where to start, I would definitely suggest you start with this book.

All I really want for my birthday is shoulder blades

I’ve written a couple of times about the first time I lost significant weight, back in 2004. At the end of that summer, I spent three weeks with my mom in Northern California. She had this indoor smokeless grill contraption and all I ate was “grilled” chicken and beef kabobs off that thing. By the time I came back to Orange County, I had dropped a few pounds and decided to keep going. From August to October of that year I went from 239 to 202 by working out six days a week with a friend.

As my body started to slim down, I noticed all the fat on my back had started melting away to reveal … shoulder blades! Well, what would have been shoulder blades had I lost more weight.

Unfortunately, that never happened. The stress of working in a college newsroom, then the OC Register newsroom, plus meeting and moving in with Nadia, taking care of my mom throughout her battle with cancer and then becoming a food writer at the paper, provided all the distraction I needed to balloon back up.

I remember being at the doctor’s office and weighing in at 267 lbs. I kept thinking about how close that was to 300 lbs., and how shameful it was that I’d made it to 202 only to take it all back and then some.

In hindsight, had I dedicated a portion of my time to fitness, I likely would have been able to maintain. But just because I was able to work off the weight doesn’t mean I had a true understanding of health and fitness and I think that in itself is the whole reason I was unable to maintain.

Now, nearly eight years later, I’m wondering how it took me so long to get back to this place–the mindset needed to strength train. On second thought, forget wondering why, I’m just glad to be here. I’ve set a target date for slimming down to mid-October when I turn 30, and truthfully, all I really want for my birthday is shoulder blades.

And I’m going to do it this time. I started exercising on Jan. 3. In the past month I’ve managed to walk 40-60 minutes each weekday, plus make it to the gym three times per week for 20 minutes on the elliptical machine. Mid-month I started adding machines for abs and trunk muscles, front, sides and back.

With January in the bag, I’m going to continue with the plan I laid out and start strength training using machines. I know there are different schools of thought on weight machines vs. free weights, but while I’m starting to build muscle I’m going to use the machines. By the beginning of summer I hope to move on to free weights.

I used the Google machine to find results on strength training for beginners, with the best results coming from about.com.

Here’s my February workout plan, found on the website:

  1. Warmup
  2. Squat (or leg press)
  3. Bench press (or chest press)
  4. Deadlift
  5. Crunch
  6. Seated cable row
  7. Triceps pushdown
  8. Lat Pulldown
  9. Overhead press
  10. Biceps curl
  11. Cool down, stretch

I walk to the gym and stretch when I get home, so numbers 1 and 11 are taken care of already. Everything in between is pretty simple to start with and each exercise provides a way to build major and minor muscle groups in a broad way. In future months my routines will be whole workouts of one muscle group, with multiple exercises for the targeted area.

But I gotta start somewhere, and this it where it all begins.

Resources:

About.com: Before you begin that  first weights session

About.com: Burn more fat–Secrets of exercise physiology

About.com: Basic strength and muscle weight training program

Week 29, Meal 3: Salsa verde grilled chicken, roasted beet and goat cheese salad

Week 29, Meal 3: Grilled chicken tossed in pistachio and herb salsa verde over arugula salad with roasted beets, goat cheese and lemon vinaigrette

(Yield: 2 servings)

Chicken
12 oz. chicken breast, butterflied
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced
1/2 T tarragon, chopped
1/2 T parsley, chopped
1/2 T chives, thinly sliced
1/4 c pistachios, chopped
1 T olive oil
1 lemon, juiced

Salad
5 oz. wild arugula
6 baby beets, different colors if possible
salt and pepper, as needed
1 t olive oil
1 oz. chevre goat cheese Dressing
1 lemon, juiced
1 T vegetable or grapeseed oil

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Toss beets with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a rack in a small roasting pan, with enough water in the pan to cover the bottom of it. Cover the pan with foil and roast the beets for 30-40 minutes, until easily pierced with a pairing knife.

Remove from the oven and, using paper towels, rub the outer  skin and stem off. Cut beet pieces into wedges.

2. In a Magic Bullet or blender, mix the lemon juice and oil to make the vinaigrette. Reserve.

3. In a small bowl, mix together the garlic, shallot, tarragon, parsley, chives, pistachios and olive oil. Reserve.

4. Preheat your grill to high. When ready to grill, cook chicken until cooked through, 3-5 minutes per side. When chicken is cooked through, slice  into strips and toss with the salsa verde. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Mix the arugula and beets  in a bowl and dress with vinaigrette.

To plate: Lay the greens out thin over the whole plate, as  opposed to a mound  in the middle. Disperse the beets evenly. Top with half of the chicken and sprinkle each salad with 1/2 oz. of goat cheese.

Week 29, Meal 2: Chicken “milanese” salad

Week 29, Meal 2: Smoked paprika dusted chicken “milanese” with mixed greens, manchego, dried cherries, pine nuts and orange-sherry vinaigrette

(Yield: 2 servings)

Chicken
12 oz. chicken breast, butterflied, pounded thin
1–1/2 t smoked paprika
salt and pepper, to taste
cooking spray, as needed

Salad
5 oz. mixed greens
2 oz. manchego cheese, shaved
1/3 c dried cherries
2 T pine nuts, toasted

Dressing
1 T orange juice concentrate
1 T sherry vinegar
1 T vegetable or grapeseed oil

1. Season the pounded chicken breast with salt, pepper and smoked paprika.

2. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and spray with cooking spray. Saute the chicken breast on each side for 3-4 minutes, until cooked through. Reserve.

3. In a large bowl, mix greens, cherries, pine nuts and half of the manchego cheese.

4. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice concentrate, sherry vinegar and oil.

To plate: Lay the chicken cutlet on the bottom of the plate and top with the salad. Finish by topping with the remaining cheese.

Correction … salads still suck, and a book report to come

The headline’s a joke, really not really … I don’t think salads suck anymore, but I am over them and ready to move on.

I hope to eventually cook both meals I skipped from the Week 29: Salads that don’t suck menu, but in the spirit of progress, I’m going to cook Chef Brian’s Week 30 menu this week. I’ll start posting it next week.

If you want to check out the delicious one I did cook, just follow the link for Week 29, Meal 1:Glazed salmon over spinach salad with mango, avocado and coconut-peanut dressing.

I’ll also have a review of a book that has been essential in my weight loss journey. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you all.

Another diet and exercise update: I didn’t want to record my weight this month because I didn’t want the added pressure. After getting back from Mexico and running face-first through the holidays I was 241 lbs (with clothes on at a doctor’s appointment on Dec. 29).

My friend Matty visited for five days after that and we didn’t eat too bad, but we definitely did not eat great. Jan. 3, the day he left, was the day I decided to stop passively failing and start actively accomplishing my goals. I was 239.9. On Friday when I weighed myself I was 233.2. I’m not going to weigh myself again until Feb. 1.

That being said, yesterday was not a day that helped any, lol. I had pizza (3 slices, Digiorno at a party) and ice cream. Also, In-N-Out (cheeseburger, not a double, no spread, but a whole order of fries). Today I will not have any of those things. I didn’t hit the gym yesterday because of knee pain and I’m going to take it easy today too. But instead of a Tuesday/Thursday gym schedule for the week, I’ll switch to Monday/Wednesday/Friday to make up for one of the lost days. I’m not going to exercise if it hurts, because I want to maintain long-term fitness and not burn out or injure myself in the short-term.

And though I’m taking a couple days off, I know physical activity is becoming habit now. Starting the first week of February, I plan to add weight training to the regimen. More on that later …

Cooking ahead frees up time to work out

One of the hardest things about weight loss is making healthy food choices.

For so many people, myself included, the beginning of any diet is full of boring chicken breasts, uninspired salmon filets and flavorless vegetables. That’s why one of the first steps to losing and maintaining weight loss should be to teach yourself how to cook. I’ve learned the hard way what a diet of high-calorie, fat-laden food can do to a person. Looking back, I wish I would have made better decisions about my food choices, because for those with weight to lose, establishing and maintaining proper food habits can be a long, hard road of failure and success, success and failure. It’s one I still struggle with everyday.

Since Nov. 2010, I’ve lost between 20 and 30 lbs. (depending on what kind of shape my diet is in at the time). I did it mostly through altering my food intake. Pulling estimates out of the air, I cut out 95 percent of my soda drinking and 90 percent of my fast food dining. I stopped eating foods with chemicals in them whose names I couldn’t pronounce. And I snuck in some fruits, veggies and nuts along the way.

Sure, I had pizza, burgers, Break of Dawn (a lot) and chocolate galore, but most of the time, I’ve been able to keep the worst offenders out of my body. And cutting things out doesn’t mean giving them up. Make burgers at home and control the portion size. Or use healthy swaps–my latest effort is to replace my chocolate/candy/ice cream/cookie/brownie habit with trail mix. I mix one super healthy trail mix with a not so healthy one (it includes candied pecans and chocolate chips) and I enjoy a reasonable portion each day. Then, once a week, I’ll grab the sweet treat if I need to–which I usually do, lol.

If you want to lose weight, but don’t know where to start, I suggest starting with food. You won’t get the benefit of a great workout if the diet isn’t right.

In starting my workout plan, I’ve decided to change my schedule for blog cooking. I used to cook Fat Dude recipes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and post them throughout the week. But cooking more than 75 meals of Chef Brian’s menus has made me quite able in the kitchen and has given me the ability to clear the path for the next stage in my weight loss journey.

I make simple meals for the week throughout the weekend so I have minimal work in the kitchen throughout the week. (Just recently I made a Hungarian-inspired chicken stew in the slow cooker, Chef Brian’s kickin’ chickin’, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and whole-wheat pasta with homemade marinara sauce; all pictured at top).

After shoveling down so many double cheeseburgers and Chicken McNuggets, I lost the taste for real food. I now know that spices open doors to new cultures; technique and a willingness to try new things broadens the palate and one’s understanding of food. I’ve said it before, and I’ll admit it again: I used to believe the best qualities in food were their cheesiness, greasiness and large portion size. After discovering what flavors and textures come from simple cooking, the qualities I used to look relish are now at the bottom of my list.

It takes time to get there, but if you put your mind to putting down the Snickers and picking up the dark chocolate–or for a better analogy, putting down the KFC and learning how to spatchcock a chicken at home–you’ve already won half the battle.

On the exercise front, It’s been 16 days since I started walking between 40 and 60 minutes each weekday, and it hasn’t been all that hard to do. I’ve been waking up at 5:30 a.m. for a 25-minute mediation walk (though I find myself getting lost in thought more often than I’m able to focus on not thinking at all) and I take a 15-minute walk on my break at work. That’s 40 minutes, done. If it’s Tuesday or Thursday–days I’ve now set for going to the gym–an extra 20 minutes is tacked on for the trip to the gym.

I’m now used to waking up to walk at 5:30 a.m., and I’m getting better with the gym. Two weekends ago, which was my first weekend after establishing a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday/Sunday schedule, I only managed to go the Saturday. This past weekend I skipped both days, but learned the lesson that if I just don’t knock it out first thing on the weekends, it’s probably not getting done. Lesson learned.

I made up for the mentality by making it to the gym late-night on Tuesday and I’m definitely going today when I get home from work. Aside from the elliptical machine, I’ve added in some abdominal and back muscle exercises, too. I’m starting to crave trips to the gym, and I get all bummed out if I miss one.

It’s taken some time to fit in fitness, but I think in the grand scale of things, this is the natural next step for the first time in my life. If I continue to build off this momentum, my goals will be within reach.

So, here’s the plan …

Niyaz Pirani (not so) fun fact: I turn 30 this year.

I don’t even like writing it. But it’s going to happen this October no matter how hard I wish it wasn’t so.

So instead of pretending like my 20s aren’t going to end, I’m using the fact to fuel the fire within.

I always imagined my thinner self at several events in the last several years–at various friends’ weddings, my own wedding, on vacations, my birthday parties, etc.–but I never pulled it off this decade. This is my last chance.

I came into this year knowing I wanted to write more blog posts, continue toward the goal of cooking 52 weeks of Fat Dude menus and get in the gym on a regular basis, but I hadn’t solidified a plan or created a goal for myself.

So, here’s the plan.

Last week I started practicing meditative walking (basically walking with a clear mind, only listening to your footsteps as you go–much harder than you think) and also walking on breaks at work and to the gym. I hit the gym on Tuesday and Thursday, doing 20 minutes on the elliptical machine (came out to 2 miles per session).

I’ve thought about it, and I want a workout schedule that allows for both sufficient rest during the work week and a day of rest in between, if possible. With the advice of a friend, I’ve decided on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday/Sunday with days of rest on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Sure, Saturday and Sunday workouts are back to back, but once I start working out muscle groups, I’ll use one day for legs and one day for upper body (either back/biceps or chest/shoulders/triceps) and it’ll be all good. I also plan to continue the morning meditation walks on the days I work out. On the days I don’t workout, I’ll continue to wake up at 5:30-5:45 a.m. and use the time to meditate and do stretches to increase my flexibility and improve my back.

I’m also not going to over-do it. If I feel like I need an extra day of rest, I’m going to take it.

I don’t think it’s over-ambitious because it’s a schedule that I can easily keep, and it’s one that addresses both physical and mental well-being. Last week, I walked Tuesday-Friday morning and went to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday. By Friday night, I had the urge to hit the gym again (but instead I did the exact opposite and went to the first-ever dinner service at my favorite restaurant Break of Dawn). On Saturday I went to the gym, too, but skipped on Sunday because the muscles in my legs were hurting.

Once 20 minutes of cardio seems too easy, I’ll up it to 30 minutes per workout. I plan to start weight training in February, but I’m going to go slow with that, too. No need to rush, as long as I get the job done.

I still want this

Seeing everyone’s year-end lists made my fingers itch to hit the keys again. It’s been too long.

If there were ever a time for a year in review, I suppose it’s now. 2011, for me, was a year of learning.

I learned the most about myself–that I can succeed when I put my mind to it, and that I can fail when I don’t give my efforts the full focus they deserve.

As this relates to this blog, I’d say I overachieved in the scope of my efforts. I designed too elaborate a weight-loss scheme, aiming to reverse several years of unhealthy habits with a one year crash course in healthy living. I started strong, but eventually I stopped walking each day. And then I stopped cooking, too.

I failed to meet my self-imposed deadline (Nov. 2011), but upon reflection, I realize that while I never hit the mark, I didn’t miss the target all together. I do cook the majority of my meals at home now. I have for the majority removed processed foods from my diet. So what, I eat too many carbs, and I’m still obsessed with chocolate–life goes on. The diet I had would  have killed me. At least I can’t claim that anymore.

But in pondering my hits and misses, I’ve solidified some major conclusions in my effort to continue on the path of living a healthy lifestyle:

1. Live in the present. I can’t change the past or predict the future. I can only live for the breath in my lungs, because I’m not promised the next. For years I’ve said “when I lose weight” or “when I start going to the gym.” That future never came because I never made it happen. If I’m able now to make something so, why not go for it?

2. Mental health is as important as physical health. As a serial multitasker both in action and thought, I’ve cluttered my mind and body with too many things to process at once. I want to take time with the things I do, and give my relationships, work and leisure the time they all deserve. I often find myself exhausted after coming home from work and then staring at the TV until bedtime. Work isn’t making me tired. I AM. I’ve self-imposed some quiet time and begun reading and practicing meditation and walking meditation. This might sound like some new-age-hippy-resolution bullshit, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and in the spirit of living in the present, I decided to give it a go.

3. Take as much time as you need. Do the job, and do it right. Don’t rush or create too much work for yourself. Simplify. As I said, I plotted this blog to be a one year project that would turn me from fat to fab because I said it could be done. And honestly, had I stuck to my exercise and cooking schedules, maybe I could have done  it. But in coming up with the idea for this thing, I didn’t realize the work that would go into making this possible. I think it’s mostly because I came into this project with the mindset of a reporter who formerly ran a five-days-a-week food blog for a newspaper. But added to a full-time job, I overwhelmed myself thinking I could cook, write and exercise (or make  it to the gym once I hit my first plateau). I made this a job, when it should have been anything  but. If I’m doing this for myself, it shouldn’t matter what schedule I’m on. What should matter is that I get it done.

And I think that’s what I should take away while moving forward. If I didn’t want to lose weight still–if I had given up–I wouldn’t be writing right now.

I still want this. … More to come.

Spatchcocking: My new favorite hobby

It’s been difficult to keep eating healthy this holiday season. I’ve now made a habit of cooking at home, but I’ve been eating more sweets than usual at holiday outings and at home. I’ll finally get back to the salad menu this weekend, now that I can restock for the menu. Hopefully those dishes will rejuvenate the full-on healthy vibes.

In the meantime, as I said, I have been trying to cook at home. And one of my new favorite things to do is soak a chicken in one of the many marinades on this blog, then spatchcock the bird. Removing the backbone and roasting it flat allows for quick and even cooking. (How to spatchcock a chicken.)

I’m going with organic chicken from Sprouts; each one is $10-$12. If you’re closer to Anaheim, I’d recommend OC Poultry & Rotisseree. The chicken has the head and the feet on it–and for some reason, everyone I tell this to freaks out over it–but sack up, cut off the strange bits and move on with it all. OCP&R has organic chicken for like $2 a pound and it’s local.

I cook it using Thomas Keller’s method in Bouchon: 25 min. on 475, then (approx.) 30 min. on 400. You get crunchy skin and moist skin. (Side note: Check the chicken between 25 and 30 minutes. The smaller the chicken, the more the higher heat cooks through before the bird roasts on the lower heat).

What I like about using whole chicken is that you have the opportunity to do so many things: Legs and thighs with rice and roasted veggies; cubed breast in salad, pasta, pretty much anything; sliced breast in sandwiches and paninis; and of course, you can make a stock with the bones and some vegetables, add back some of that chicken and whatever else you’d like, and have a pretty awesome soup.

I recently used the chermoula marinade from our Moroccan menu and served it family style on a bed of the stewed garbanzo side. There’s so much to do with a roast chicken, and I think I’ve only just begun.

Quick review: Thomas Keller’s “Bouchon”

I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks in my spare time, mostly just to broaden my horizons regarding all facets of cooking: ingredient, technique, equipment, country of origin, etc.

Cultured me first started with Guy Fieri’s “Food.” I tried to make his “Texas Hold ‘Em,” a BBQ brisket stuffed fresh baked loaf of bread. I failed miserably because I forgot that I’ve never made bread before, let alone stuffed a brick of beef into one.

So I scaled back, deciding to up the refinement and cut down on the list of ingredients. I chose to open Thomas Keller’s “Bouchon,” the cookbook companion to his Yountville, Calif. restaurant of the same name. The book–essentially a love letter to the French bistros Keller frequented when he staged in Paris–is a gorgeous celebration of simple cooking and perfect execution.

Because Chef Brian’s Fat Dude menus account for much of the scratch-cooking experience I have, I have learned to cook dishes that are composed of multiple layers of flavor, with spices and other flavor tricks to keep each component interesting.

Bouchon redefines to me what a shopping list can be. Keller’s roast chicken recipe has only five ingredients, two of which are optional. It teaches that simple is just as good as complex.

It’s full of gorgeous pictures, amazing tips and a bevy of recipes covering the traditional yet exquisite (beef bourguignon, rabbit pate) and simple comforts easily made at home (croque madame, potato leek soup).

Bouchon is a must-have for anyone who wants to explore French bistro cooking through the lens of Keller, an inspiring American great.

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