“What We Can Learn About Breast Cancer & Diet From the Women’s Health Initiative”

* Photos originally accompanying the initial publishing of this post have been removed to honor the request of the presenters of this session. *

You would be forgiven if you think the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) is a vehicle for women to initiate action and take good care of themselves. You would also be forgiven if you’ve never even heard of the Women’s Health Initiative.

Sitting down with a friend over a steaming cup of coffee to discuss the outcomes and nuances of WHI is not an everyday occurrence for the lay public, but it’s exactly the lay public, specifically the FEMALE portion, that the WHI works to impact.

The Women’s Health Initiative is a multi-million dollar, 20+ year national health study focusing on the prevention of heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and osteoporotic fractures in postmenopausal women. In older women, regardless of race and socioeconomic background, these chronic diseases are the major causes of death, disability and frailty. (1)

This robust study was one of the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trials of postmenopausal women’s health ever undertaken in the U.S., and will continue into the future to provide practical information to inform women and their physicians.

The Observational Study portion continues to examine the relationship between lifestyle, health and risk factors and specific disease outcomes, and involves tracking the medical history and health habits of 93,676 women. 

Every aspect of the study yields fascinating outcomes for improving health, yet as you may have guessed, I’m most interested in the Dietary Modification component, an evaluation of the effect of diet, specifically a low-fat, high fruit, vegetable and grain diet, on the prevention of breast and colorectal cancers and coronary heart disease.

I recently attended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual Food & Nutrition Conference (FNCE) where three dietitians knee-deep in the WHI research presented on this topic; Dr. Marian Neuhouser and Dr. Lesley Tinker from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA (the WHI Clinical Coordinating Center for data collection, management, and analysis), and Dr. Linda Van Horn from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.

Because this research continues to evolve and yield new findings, it was no small undertaking to distill volumes of information into an insightful overview and actionable directives we can use NOW , but these esteemed speakers did not disappoint. Below, I share the main take-home messages:

Insight Into Why Specific Diet Protocols Don’t Yet Exist

 

Cancer cells are wily; able to successfully evade our immune system’s efforts to destroy them, replicate themselves many times over, invade and metastasize to other areas of the body, build new blood supply’s, and resist cell death. Determining the EXACT way that food, dietary patterns and nutrition can outsmart and confer protection against a cancer cell’s innate arsenal remains elusive – yet researchers are making progress.

Nutrition, Diet and Its Impact on Cancer Initiation

 

We aren’t there yet – true prevention, that is. While I dream of a world where prevention rules, until that time comes I use the term “risk reduction.” Still, findings exist that link diet and nutrition to a positive impact on the cancer disease process at several points, specifically: DNA repair, cellular proliferation, differentiation, the cell cycle and apoptosis (cell death). How does diet do that, you ask?

Per Dr. Neuhouser, who graciously responded to my email request for answers to that question (my notes were sketchy!), “These mechanisms are influenced by nutrients – primarily micronutrients – that act as co-factors of enzymes that up-regulate or down-regulate these pathways. Energy intake also plays a role, because macronutrient intake leads to insulin secretion, and hyper insulin secretion up-regulates the cell proliferation pathways.”

Here’s a translation:

Micronutrients are nutrients in food that the body needs in small amounts; vitamins and minerals, whereas macronutrients are foods required in large amounts; carbohydrate, protein, fat (and water and fiber.) Micronutrients (i.e. vitamins E, C, D, A and minerals like calcium, potassium and phosphorus) act like “helpers” (co-factors) to make other processes happen in the body, and macronutrients supply calories (making up our “energy intake”) to fuel the body. It’s the action of these micro and macronutrients – too much or too little micronutrients and/or calorie intake – in “regulating” certain pathways that help tame or spur on cancer cells in their proliferation or differentiation, support cells in their repair efforts, or encourage cell death.

Having the ability to one day share with patients/clients specific foods that turn cancer cells on or off, knowing how much to eat for targeted results, providing meal timing guidelines, and micro and macronutrient distribution for each individual’s specific breast cancer would be a game changer. Personalized nutrition protocols such as this would make a significant difference in healing, treatment outcomes, risk reduction, and dare I say, even PREVENTION!

What We DO Know

  • Being overweight or obese is linked to nearly every common cancer in both men AND women.
  • Lifestyle factors, exercise AND diet are responsible for ~30% of all cancers.
  • A better diet is associated with lower risk of cancer deaths, which held true for all women in this study EXCEPT for those who started with a body mass index (BMI)  >30.
  • There appears to be an interrelationship between pre-diabetes and diabetes as risk factors for breast cancer, with obesity a contender as the link.
  • We may see some differences in outcomes between the different types of breast cancer (there are many) and diet.
  • Women who ate a high-fat diet at the start of the study (which was reduced during the study through intervention) showed greater reduction in breast cancer risk (possibly connected to weight loss.)
  • Over the long term, postmenopausal women who followed a diet consistent with the American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and other healthy diet indicators (i.e. American Institute for Cancer Research) had significantly lower breast cancer risk and mortality.
  • Breast cancer takes years to develop; a healthy diet should be maintained long-term for the maximum health benefit.

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Putting It Into PRACTICE

As I see it, the challenge for most women in effectively and consistently using the ACS nutrition guidelines lies in only being told WHAT to do, but not HOW to do it. Below are the “whats”, and I’ve added a few “how-tos” to help make this work for you:

6 American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition

  • Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. 
      • ⅔ of plate filled with vegetables.
      • Eat a vegetable and/or fruit with each meal/snack.
  • Choose foods and drinks in amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.
      • Serve meals at home on 9 inch plates; have seconds if you’re still hungry (are you REALLY?), yet refill plate only 50%.
      • Take ⅔ of restaurant meals home as leftovers.
      • Order smallest size available for beverages containing calories.
  • Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.
      • ≤ 18 ounces/week.
  • Eat at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits each day.
      • Not sure how much that is? Use measuring cups to train your eye, or visualize 2 ½ fists full.
  • Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.
      • Whole wheat pasta and flour.
      • Brown rice.
      • Quinoa, amaranth, whole grain (vs. pearled) barley, millet.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit your intake.
    • No more than 1 standard drink (defined below) per day for women or 2 per day for men:
      • 12 ounces of regular beer
      • 5 ounces of wine
      • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
    • A standard drink contains 14 grams of PURE alcohol (the true culprit behind the cancer connection, which has nothing to do with the VOLUME in your glass.) (2)
    • For breast cancer, there is NO safe limit for alcohol.

If you want more nutrition and breast cancer information and updates on programs and services, shoot me an email at cathy@cathyleman.com.

I’ll subscribe you to my weekly newsletter, and as a thank you, send along my “25 Ways To Strike Back At Breast Cancer.”

You can follow me here. . .

Twitter: @cathylemanrd

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eatwellgetstrong/

Easy. Peasy. 

Sources

  1.  “The Women’s Health Initiative” 
  2. “The National Institutes of Health | The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism”

 

“Travel Well Portland: 5 Bold Restaurants & 12 Random Experiences That Will Leave You Wanting MORE!”

Upon returning from my travels, my practice is to do a write-up highlighting information to help you stay “health-focused” should you one day find yourself visiting the same locale.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again (forever), packing healthy habits alongside your jammies is the best way to keep breast cancer risk reduction top of mind when you (temporarily) leave your regular life/routine behind!

Having just returned from a wonderful week in the Pacific Northwest – specifically, Portland, Oregon – I’m excited to share some of my health-supportive/focused finds, from restaurants offering plant-based options (NOT a challenge in Portland!), to spots for fresh air and exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise, to interestingly unique-to-Portland shops, ideas and concepts that nourish mind, body and soul.

Let me start with this: I WANT TO GO BACK!

A return trip to this part of the U.S. is definitely on the agenda, although the plan is to start in Vancouver, BC and work our way back to Portland through Washington state (Seattle Space Needle and Pike Place Fish Market, here we come!). Although we hit the ground running immediately after dumping our bags at our VRBO condo, Portland (and the surrounding area) boasts so much to see and do, it felt like we barely scratched the surface.

Portland is gorgeous, quirky, urban, friendly, and something I didn’t realize, crazy in love with dogs. My husband is the dog lover in the family, I’m the dog tolerator, but I will admit it was awfully entertaining to watch all the doggies and their owners frolicking in the park right outside our condo at all hours of the day (they were especially frolickocious in the frosty before-work and dusky after-work hours; LOTS of fetching going on.)

To kick this off, here are a handful of shots I took that capture the pure essence of Portland:

Perfect.
LOTS of smokers 🙁 in PDX. Nice vape reference – that’s nasty too.
Great poster of my fav at an actual vinyl record shop.

Eat.

If your goal is maintaining a plant-based diet (vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or anywhere in between) while visiting the Pac-Northwest, Portland is THE place to do it.

Every single restaurant was extremely accommodating to our requests for meatless meals, although meatless meals were found on the menu at every, single restaurant we visited (obviously, it’s one of our criteria for choosing a restaurant.)

Sometimes it was simply a matter of clarifying ingredients or asking for minor substitutions, but these conversations and requests were never a big deal, in fact, it was almost expected – so refreshing! The biggest challenge in finding a meatless meal was during our trip to Cannon Beach; off-season, many restaurants closed the day we visited, but even there we ferreted out the ubiquitous hummus wrap and tomato soup (gotta love how America has discovered hummus.)

A commitment to sustainable and environmentally friendly agricultural practices, fresh, local produce, and no additives, preservatives or dyes was another thing I admired, respected and patronized several of our Portland restaurant choices for. It was another nod to health and the environment that I greatly appreciated.

Below is a collection of dining spots we hit – and loved!

  1. Boxer Ramen

The richest, most delicious bowl of ramen I’ve ever eaten. This vegan curry bowl was brimming with corn (common in traditional ramen), broccoli rabe, marinated shiitake mushrooms (great cancer risk-reducers), and scallions. I ordered extra vegetables, always a good practice when dining out, since even vegetable-heavy dishes like this tend to be light on the veggies. The precursor to the ramen was a “greens + sesame” salad (yes, MORE veggies!) of swiss chard, shiitakes, pickled cabbage and soy toasted walnuts. The gorgeous black drizzle you see on the ramen is called “mayu”, black garlic oil, the recipe for which I promptly asked the chef, and share here “Mayu” with you.  

Vegan curry ramen bowl.
Boxer Ramen!

“Boxer Ramen”

__________________________

2. Hot Lips Pizza

Any restaurant where the young guys behind the counter feverishly write down ingredients and exclaim “I can’t wait to try this!” as I share my recipe for broccoli salad, is a restaurant I will visit time and time again. 

I loved this restaurant’s commitment to using fresh ingredients from local farms, and that an entire SECTION of their menu was devoted to Vegan Pizza Pies – including the one we ordered – “Falawesome Ball Pie” (it truly was awesome.) This pie featured a delectable squash (as in the vegetable) sauce base, topped with roasted red pepper, spinach, onions, and sliced falafel chickpea balls. Precursor was a kale slaw with carrots, raisins and hazelnuts – a discussion of which kicked off the sharing of the broccoli salad recipe.

Kale slaw.
“Falawesome Ball Pie”

www.hotlipspizza.com (sorry, trouble imbedding the URL; type this into Google and you’ll get there!)

_______________________

3. Mediterranean Exploration Company

After dinner at this tapas-style restaurant, where my tastebuds were happily in overdrive and my belly was (unhappily) too full, we went an entire 24-hours eating only a bit of oatmeal and fruit – yes, we were THAT stuffed.

This place serves GORGEOUS food with exquisite and sophisticated flavor profiles, and we wanted to try EVERY plant-based item (but didn’t) on the menu. Even with limiting our choices, we still “over-ordered” and couldn’t quite finish everything, but darn it, we did our best (hence the meal that kept us full forEVER).

Even without eating a huge volume of food, eating lots of plants prepared by a chef who is not shy with the olive oil will keep you satiated for hours, thanks to the fat and high fiber – living proof right here.

Silky hummus (they must use skinless chickpeas), crispy, garlicky roasted potatoes, the best mejadra I’ve ever eaten (completely destroyed my ability to enjoy this dish at any other restaurant, ever again), and a mind-numblingly delicious freekah salad brimming with peppers and corn created the bulk (no pun intended) of our meal.

After such a robust repast, our plan was to walk to our evening destination, but this being Portland with its predictable unpredictable torrential downpours, there was no chance of walking off dinner until later, when we finally did. Eat here.

Silky hummus and mushrooms
Mejadra (lentils, onions, rice, spices)

“Mediterranean Exploration Company”

______________________________

4. Cha! Cha! Cha!

One evening we weren’t super hungry, but knew we would be if we didn’t have a little something (don’t you hate that between-hungry/full feeling?), and found this friendly taqueria within walking distance of our condo. I actually wished I were MORE hungry so that I could have eaten MORE of the most delicious veggie tacos and steaming bowl of tortilla soup (which I couldn’t finish) I’ve had in ages. Their food is FROM SCRATCH, their commitment is to health, sustainability and giving back to the community – what’s not to love? Next visit, I’m saving my appetite for a FULL meal at this spot, for sure.

Veggie taco + tortilla soup.

“Cha! Cha! Cha!”

___________________________

5. Gilda’s

Happy 27th anniversary to us!

Celebrating the day we said “I do” was the reason behind this trip in the first place, and how we found ourselves at this great neighborhood spot. Earlier in the week we’d had Italian that was disappointingly not. very. good. This was beyond. good.

Pre-dinner salads were fresh and not drowning in gloppy dressing, the pasta perfectly al dente and authentic. That’s what happens when the chef learns, trains, and works in Italy before settling back in the U.S. to wow folks with his food. Thank you, chef Marco.

Gnocchi with mushrooms, garlic, shallots.
Pasta w/red sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts.

“Gilda’s Italian Restaurant”

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Totally Random Portland

I think one of the best things about traveling is how your mind scoops up new ideas and experiences. Here’s a collection of things that interested me, I participated in, and spoke (mostly) to the idea of “health in mind” as well. . .

  • Green Zebra Grocery

Remember “White Hen” convenience stores? Green Zebra is that, only stocked full of fresh produce, a salad bar, vegan/vegetarian/healthier packaged items, and a hot food counter/bar (like Whole Foods, only smaller and much less $$.) We need these in Chicago!

  • Food Fight Grocery

A 100% vegan grocery store selling vegan “junk” food. This I had to see. And seriously? I cracked up at the sign on the front door (read carefully below!)

There were some “un-junky” items to be sure, like this nut-butter combo you see below, but ‘ya know – organic, vegan, non-GMO candy bars and chips are still candy bars and chips – not the foundation of a balanced vegan diet. But you already knew that. And it sure was fun to peruse.

  • Co-ops and (other) interesting grocery stores carry unique items:

Like organic multigrain tempeh in “bulk”, a steal at $15.99.

Bulk tempeh.
  • Coffee – fabulous coffee (and adorable indie coffee shops) on practically every corner; a welcome respite from. . .you know. . .S*#RB+@S.

  • Stunning hiking trails and ocean views.
Forest Park
Cannon Beach, OR
Ecola State Park, Cannon Beach, OR
  • Hood River County “Fruit Loop” orchard tour.

  • Painted buildings sport inspired “art” – a feast for your eyes.

  • I discovered 100% chocolate.

  • Serenity of the “Portland Japanese Garden.”

  • Perky painted houses all in a row – nothing to do with health, but everything to do with order, surprise, and spunkiness – three often opposing concepts I adore.

  • A fully tricked out in-house fitness center.

  • Taking a barre3 class with a room full of women I didn’t know (no pics, but here’s the link.) “barre3 Portland”

And there you have it, a (mini)tour of my action-packed week in Portland. If you’re traveling there anytime soon, I’m jealous!! And I hope my (mini)guide helps point you to nourishing food and fun, healthy times.

If you want more nutrition and breast cancer information and updates on programs and services, shoot me an email at cathy@cathyleman.com.

I’ll subscribe you to my weekly newsletter, and as a thank you, send along my “25 Ways To Strike Back At Breast Cancer.”

You can follow me here. . .

Twitter: @cathylemanrd

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eatwellgetstrong/

Easy. Peasy. 

 

 

“3 Breast Cancer Diets That Harm Not Heal”

Loss of control.

That feeling shows up front and center on the heels of a breast cancer diagnosis so darn quickly I feel as if the doctor delivering the “It is cancer” news should in the same breath say, “For the rest of your life, please prepare to surrender any assumptions that you ever held even a modicum of control over your health – you foolish woman.”

Feeling like you’ll never regain your equilibrium, you search desperately for the first thing that hints even slightly of an ability to ground and balance you.

For many women, that “first thing” is food.

This topic is one of my areas of expertise, one I’ll continue to write broadly about, but today I address how a well-intentioned effort at “helping” can be misguided at best, dangerous at worst, and share wisdom for finding true nutritional balance laced with compassion and understanding.

The “F*#! You” Diet

Also known as the “What The Hell” diet, this is the nutrition plan you choose once you’ve determined that it really doesn’t matter what you eat because everything causes breast cancer, that healthy diet you (sort of) ate before your diagnosis failed you, and honestly, you simply no longer give a f*#!

It takes every ounce of energy to wrap your mind around the fact that you actually have breast cancer, and the upcoming surgery and treatment is stressing you out so much you tranquilize yourself with your favorite “foods-that-never-fail-to-comfort”; heavy on the sweets and chips, hold the broccoli.

It takes too much energy to cook, grocery shopping is impossible to squeeze in between the ridiculous number of medical appointments now crowding your calendar, and even if you were to consider preparing a meal, you suddenly have cooking amnesia. What in the world could you possibly make, as distracted as you are by your diagnosis?

It would require a preternatural act of God to muster up the concentration necessary to chop, stir, heat, measure and blend – who could possibly cook at a time like this? Besides, you’re so angry about the whole thing, that time alone in the kitchen could very well result in shattered glass, busted dishware, and an unhealthy obsession with that pantry shelf where you hide all the junky snacks.

Take out, drive through, and microwave meals become your staples, and there isn’t enough ice cream on the planet to calm you down. 

___________

WISDOM: Chances are, even before your breast cancer diagnosis, you turned to food to soothe, support, and save you. While it’s true food can serve as a reliable, readily accessible, cheap and legal way to feel better fast, it wasn’t a healthy solution before your diagnosis, and it’s even less so now. Research shows that nutrition has a positive impact on treatment outcomes and in reducing risk of recurrence, so that “everything causes breast cancer” adage just doesn’t hold up.

You have every right to be angry, yet taking that anger out on yourself through a full-on “Eff-U”approach to eating is a classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. You may FEEL better (briefly) after pounding down an entire pound cake, but is it possible that the relief comes more from the distraction the cake provides? Of course! It’s so much easier to push reality to the edges of your mind when you’re busy shoving forkful after forkful of food into your mouth.

Can you list three non-food ways to manage your anger without sending your blood sugar skyrocketing and your GI tract into spasms?

Example: Acknowledge the anger and panic; order a stand-up punching bag pronto.

  1. ____________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________

The “Beyond Perfection” Diet

Every. Single. Bite. Must. Be. Squeaky. Clean. You’ve taken nutritious eating to an extreme; even organic isn’t quite organicky enough.

This is the nutrition plan you choose when you just know that the healthier and cleaner your diet is, the better off your health, treatment outcome, and recurrence risk will be. How dare breast cancer even consider ever again invading your body (once you’ve had that surgery and whatever treatment lies ahead) with the ironclad, super-clean diet you’ve adopted.

Your refrigerator and pantry are packed with maca and matcha, greens and grains, berries and broccoli, and you’ve determined the exact ratio and variety of whole foods necessary to maintain the perfect level of alkalinity required to keep breast cancer at bay.

You’re devouring every nutrition and cancer book you can get your hands on, counting macros, measuring antioxidant levels of local versus imported red grapes, and undertaking an exhaustive comparison of all varieties of rooibos tea.

Regardless of whether you’re at a party, a restaurant (who knows what’s really in that food?), or simply the grocery store, if you can’t get the “perfect” clean food – you simply won’t eat – you’re too terrified that one bite of a conventional carrot will send your cancer everywhere.

This is POISON, just POISON!

Funnily enough, all of that reading has failed to turn up the word “orthorexia”, the one term that offers a slightly different perspective, and something to consider in chasing diet perfection. 

_____________

WISDOM: Let me be perfectly clear. There is NOTHING wrong with the intention to uplevel your nutrition at this time; in fact, I highly recommend it. The trouble comes when an obsession with perfection overrides the sensibility of simply nourishing your body well enough to withstand treatment and improve outcomes. Nutrition isn’t as black and white, good food/bad food-focused as the cancer nutrition books and websites would have you believe, so working to find the gray that allows you to actually live your life is a worthy endeavor.

While exciting research continues in the discovery of certain foods that confer promising benefits for breast cancer risk reduction and potentially even prevention, here’s the most important thing to remember: “No single food or meal can cause or prevent cancer, and no “diet” is bulletproof. Increase fruits and vegetables (conventional is fine if organic isn’t in your budget), eat more plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds, add whole grain options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, and don’t forget to serve yourself an enormous helping of satisfaction and enjoyment with your meal.”

The “Supplements as Food” Diet

Eat actual food? No. Absolutely not.

This is the nutrition plan you choose once you’ve determined that you simply can’t trust food to keep you healthy. With your breast cancer diagnosis, you’re living proof. You’ve been advised by your ___________________(fill in with questionable website, book, unscrupulous practitioner, etc.) to drink a certain tea, blend and consume a special powder, swallow a particular combination of supplements, and fast every other day.

Food is the enemy, and the breast cancer cure lies in spending time (not to mention untold sums of money) preparing special tinctures and potions. The mixing and monitoring and timing of things takes your mind off the impending surgery and treatment, and you feel confident that this is the best approach to nourishing your body – regardless of what your oncologist or breast surgeon thinks.

Enjoying a restaurant meal with friends is out of the question, you’re dropping weight faster than you care to think about, and your energy is flagging. But hey, this plan is supposed to keep the breast cancer away and that’s enough “evidence” for you.

_____________

WISDOM: Right now, you are quite possibly the most vulnerable to nutritional chicanery you’ve ever been. The term “snake oil” wouldn’t be a stretch to describe some of the unscrupulous recommendations easily available with the click of a mouse and the entering of a credit card number – and they’re looking for YOU!

Don’t be fooled. Actual food, with its synergy of nutrients and health properties can never be replaced with a supplement regimen. There’s nothing wrong with learning which supplements may complement your nutritional regimen, but in the end, please remember there’s a reason they’re called SUPPLEMENTS. . .they’re the supporting cast, not the diet lead.

“How Not To Blow Up Your Healthy Habits On a Girls’ Weekend Getaway”

Broccoli is your friend.

You know it, your mother has long known it, the breast cancer risk reduction research people know it. And because you try to do all you can to (hopefully) keep that evil breast cancer away or from returning, you eat broccoli.

You serve broccoli for dinner at home, pack it for lunch at the office, and pile it high as a party appetizer, snuggled alongside the red pepper hummus. You even try to remember to order it as a side when you eat out.

But if you’re honest? You’d rather have potato chips. Or French fries. Or beer-battered onion rings.

With a Chardonnay chaser.

What does broccoli have to do with a girls’ getaway weekend, you ask? Everything.

Eating in your own kitchen limits opportunities to eat those “other” foods on a regular basis; it’s too much trouble to whip out your “FryDaddy”®, and if you don’t buy the potato chips, you can’t dig into them.

But just when you’re feeling pretty good about this healthy habits thing, your calendar reminds you of the girls’ weekend you planned months ago; a weekend filled with tantalizing restaurant menus to order from without dishes to do afterward, and no kids, carpool, homework, husband/significant other, meetings, deadlines, pets, commitments or responsibilities to answer to – outside of having a great time.

And just like that? The broccoli vanishes, faster than you can say “antioxidants.”

Change Your Environment, Change Your Habits

I’ve written previously about changing your environment to support healthy habits, and the same holds true to support UNHEALTHY habits.

Anytime you leave your normal routine behind to hit the road and travel anywhere, for any reason, opportunities to blow up your healthy habits await you at every turn.

Fresh from a long girls’ weekend in Des Moines (yes, Iowa!), I thought I’d share some of my tips and a few of our experiences to help you navigate the siren song of the endless Chardonnay pour and late night hotel room pizza delivery. If you return from a weekend of friendship and fun feeling restored and revived vs hungover and depleted, you know you served your body (and mind!) well. Which would you rather have?

Bite Back (Nutrition aka Feed Yourself)

  1. Pack food for the road and the room –
    • Whether you drive or fly to your destination, bring food! I brought a cooler packed with almond milk, my favorite plant-based coffee creamer, fresh blueberries, apples, and fresh cherries. I packed separately dried figs (calcium-rich, sweet-tooth-satisfying snack) and homemade peanut butter. 
    • For a high fiber, quality breakfast to keep you full for hours, add a side of fresh fruit to a homemade mix of ⅓ cup quick cooking oatmeal, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 tablespoon chia seeds, and 2 tablespoons ground flaxseed. Transport an oatmeal mix for each morning you’ll be there in individual portable containers or ziplock bags, to which you’ll add plant-based (or cow’s) milk and honey (snagged from the breakfast bar) and heat in the microwave. We stayed in a room with a kitchenette and access to cereal bowls; normally I pack a heavy ceramic mug (I know – but it works!!) in the event bowls are nowhere to be found.
    • We smeared peanut butter on apples to hold us over until a late(r) dinner reservation, and help us order from the menu sanely vs. hangrily. Stir peanut butter into your morning oatmeal to add healthy fat and more protein; a good trick to satisfy and save you in the event lunch is delayed by heavy-duty sightseeing or shopping.
  2. Choose restaurants with your health goals in mind –
    • Traveling is about trying local foods and cuisine – I get it and wholeheartedly agree, but you don’t have to abandon all of your healthy habits to do so. Research restaurants and menus online before you arrive, noting spots that offer veggie side dishes, whole grains, and plant-based options so you can mix up your meal to include both more and less healthy options. For example, choose a side of grilled broccoli(!) vs French fries with your burger one night, and fried onion rings plus a side salad with your grilled chicken the next.
    • I eat a vegan diet, my friend doesn’t. While I thought vegan options might be challenging to find in Des Moines, I was happily proven wrong! Every restaurant we visited offered vegan and vegetarian options – even the seafood restaurant where we dined our first night.      
      Arugula, patty pan squash, tomatoes in a lemon vinaigrette.

                                                                                                                However, the plant-based options sometimes need a little protein bump, so here’s my trick. I request the addition of items I see elsewhere on the menu. For example, my pasta dish was described on the menu with only vegetables, but edamame was used in the salmon dish my friend ordered; I asked the chef to add some to my dish, a request he graciously honored.

      Truffle oil pasta, roasted farm veggies, edamame.
    • Be prepared for healthy-habit fails, because even the best intentions for eating well sometimes fall flat. We were excited to try Magnolia Wine Kitchen and its “superfood” salad of kale, shaved Brussels sprouts, almonds, avocado, and chia seeds with a blueberry vinaigrette. Our waiter declared the salad “huge”, so we split it three ways, although we agreed that even combining the three portions wouldn’t have resulted in a “huge” salad. But then, we’re salad freaks. Unfortunately, with its “bagged” flavor, look and feel, dry, unappealing vegetables, avocado an unnatural shade of yellowish green with a rubbery, inedible texture, and MIA chia seeds – back to the kitchen the superfood salad went. My black bean burger and lentil soup entree were good, and the roasted veggie sandwiches ordered by my partners in crime were declared very good, but I was disappointed I didn’t get that veggie boost I aim for every day. Should you have the same experience, eat a double veggie serving at your next meal, and pat yourself on the back for a solid attempt.
  • 3. Use restaurant menu options to test-drive new dishes –
    • Many people tell me they want to eat more plant-based meals, but aren’t always sure what to prepare. A restaurant offers a great opportunity to try dishes you can recreate at home, like this tofu gnocchi dish, on the menu at Centro. Paired with a side of broccolini (yes, you’ll likely pay extra for the veggie sides, but the nutrition is WORTH it), this was a satisfying dish I’ve never seen on a menu. Way to go Centro Des Moines!

Move Back (Fitness aka Move Yourself)

  1. Locate first the fire exits, second the fitness room –
    • My strategy at any hotel; a quick visit to the fitness center to learn where it is, what equipment’s available, and the hours of operation.  
    • Go there. First thing. In the morning. If you start your day without a visit to the fitness center, odds are it won’t happen. I know you’re thinking, “But we’ll walk EVERYWHERE! That’s my workout.” No, that’s activity. When you walk as you window shop or head to dinner, you’re strolling or meandering. Do some strength training or stationary cycling – use your muscles differently and get your heartrate up, stretch a little. Maintaining your fitness routine when traveling helps you not abandon it when you return home because you’ve “missed a few days.”
  2. Walk EVERYWHERE –
    • I love walkable cities, and Des Moines didn’t disappoint. We parked our cars on Thursday, didn’t move them until we left on Sunday, and put miles and miles on our walking shoes (which COMPLEMENTED the a.m.workout.) The concierge/front desk staff can always provide a good map and directions – or do as we did and wander with no agenda to see what spontaneous fun you can find.
  3. Run If You Can –
    • Just outside our hotel was the “Neal Smith Trail”, a bicycle and running/walking path that meanders along the Des Moines river. Make a point to find off-the-beaten spots for a little solitude and exercise; sustenance for your mind and body.

Strike Back (Lifestyle aka Take Care of Yourself)

  1. Take in the outdoors –
    • Meredith Corporation’s Des Moines-based “Better Homes and Gardens” opens their test garden to the public on Friday’s, noon-2:00, May-September. With its rich mix of colors and textures, bubbly fountain, and interesting hardscapes, this lushly planted oasis is a feast for all your senses, as well as a treasure trove of plant tidbits and info courtesy of uber-knowledgeable test garden manager, Sandra Gerdes. Nature feeds your soul and reduces stress – seek it out when you travel. 

      Forever friends in the garden.
  2. Cater to your arts and culture side –
    • The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (it takes A LOT of pizza), live party band The Punching Pandas at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market, and “Java Joe’s Coffee House 4th Street Theatre Kitten Bomb Improv Comedy” were polar opposite experiences, but each one intrigued, challenged our thinking, and made us laugh – catharsis at its finest. Cultural experiences, the arts, and simply stepping outside our regular routine triggers creativity and a deep appreciation for how glorious and unique this world really is.

Sweet Potato Chickpea Pasta Sauce

I love opening my refrigerator door, taking a quick inventory of what’s hanging around, and conjuring up a way to combine the remains of the week’s meals into something new, nourishing, and delicious.

This week’s fridge review yielded leftover whole wheat pasta, two sweet potatoes, and garbanzo beans (chickpeas). I closed the refrigerator door and left to run Saturday errands – but in the back of my mind the assembly was already coming together.

What if I sautéed onion and garlic for extra flavor (and nutrition!), blended the sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans with veggie broth, swirled in the marinara, and served it over the pasta? Bingo.

Here’s a video showing the collection of ingredients I had to work with. Normally, I would simply dump the garbanzo’s, sweet potatoes, and some broth together in my NutriBullet and blend until it “looked right”, but I wanted to portion it out to give you exact amounts so you could recreate.

First I sautéed the onion until soft, THEN added the garlic. You don’t want to burn the garlic (gets bitter), so I find cooking the onions first and then dumping the garlic on top a good way to avoid that.

Onions and garlic sautéing in olive oil.

Next, I blended the sweet potato, chickpeas, and vegetable broth to create a smooth, silky mixture. I used Engine 2 Plant-Strong Organic Vegetable Stock because it’s “low sodium” claim truly is low; only 35 mg sodium per 1 cup! I love that, because when I don’t have homemade veg broth available I want a convenient option that doesn’t compromise nutrition.

I added the blended chickpea/sweet potato mixture to the onions and garlic, stirred it all together well, then swirled in the marinara (use the lowest sodium, no sugar or “extra” ingredients brand you can find!):

It. Was. Delicious.

Success!

And seriously, it was QUICK, I set my phone timer when I started. Here’s a screenshot to show you it took only 16 minutes and 49 seconds. Obviously that’s not including the time it took me to portion the ingredients, but it includes chopping the onion and garlic, the blenderizing, and combining!

Preparing the sautéed beet greens and spinach side dish (see below) took a little extra time, maybe 10 minutes. Also doesn’t include clean up – but my husband does that, LOL!

Regardless, you could make this sauce in ~20 minutes then store it for later. Timesaver!!

Here’s a pic of the finished meal – it truly was so good, and we even have leftovers. Find the recipe below – enjoy!

Beet greens and spinach sautéed in olive oil and (lots of!) chopped garlic.

Sweet Potato and Chickpea Pasta Sauce

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 large cloves garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup cooked sweet potato (2 medium)

3/4 cup chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

1 3/4 cup low sodium vegetable broth

1 1/2 cup low sodium marinara sauce (I like Trader Joes’s organic no salt added)

Sprinkle of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

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  1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (I like to use cast iron; adds iron to the dish), then add the onion, a sprinkle of Kosher salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Sauté the onion until soft, then mix in the garlic and cook for another minute.
  2. While the onion/garlic mixture cooks, blend the garbanzo beans, sweet potato, and vegetable broth together in a high-powered blender (I use my NutriBullet).
  3. Add the sweet potato/garbanzo bean mixture to the onion/garlic mixture, blend well and cook for ~2 minutes. Stir in the marinara sauce, heat through for ~5 minutes and serve over your favorite pasta, or cool to room temperature and refrigerate for later!