Food Recipes

Ho-Ho-How to Avoid Santa’s Belly

Growing up, I never thought I had a sweet tooth. Sure, I liked Klondike bars with the rest of the 80s kids (and I guess I’ve already revealed my propensity for cereal) but set me free in a candy shop and I’d usually gravitate not toward the jelly beans but to the single bag of salt and vinegar potato chips up by the register.

Salt, not sweet, has traditionally been my flavor of choice, so it’s been strange to me that in the weeks since the wedding, I simply can’t stop craving sugar.

Mine! All mine!

Normally my survival strategy for avoiding unhealthy foods is to just keep them out of my reach: the old “no cookies in the house, no cookies in my belly” diet routine. But there’s one time of year when that’s simply not an option, and it’s upon us: The holidays!

Nutrition bloggers the whole internet over will give you tips for keeping your sugar intake down between Advent and Epiphany, and I’ve even joined them in holiday seasons past. Some of the tips are good ones, like avoiding non-special holiday food (i.e. tree-shaped pretzels) you can eat any time of year, but other tips, like not even letting baked goods into your home, simply don’t make sense.

Why, you ask? Because I like baked goods! And I like holiday flavors! And I like sugar! And if someone gifts you a plate of homemade cookies, you’d be a real Grinch to decline.

That said, there are ways to have your cake and eat it too, or — since that idiom never made any sense — have your holiday treats and keep them from being total and utter sugar bombs. How, you ask? Cook them yourself.

Now I know between all the wrapping and caroling and decking the halls you won’t have time to bake all the holiday classics alone, but even opting to bring one (slightly) lighter dish to your next seasonal fête can be a smart move in waistline preservation. And that doesn’t always mean starting with a Cooking Light recipe. Sometimes, with a little practice and experimentation, you can take a traditionally heavy recipe and lighten it up with a few key substitutes.

When choosing what dessert recipe to make, I always look for three things:

  1. Can I swap out any of the white flour for whole wheat flour?
  2. Can I swap out any of the vegetable oil or butter for applesauce or yogurt?
  3. Can I find a way to incorporate fruit or nuts, even if they aren’t in the original recipe?

Now I know some bakers are turning in their graves, because these swaps won’t work for every dish. Some delicate nibbles would get too heavy with whole wheat flour, and some classic cookies wouldn’t crisp up without good old fashioned butter. But other recipes are pretty forgiving of swaps like these, especially bars and loafs with a little more give.

Take, for instance, the gingerbread I made last weekend from a Food & Wine recipe:

Thanks, F&W! Copyright here.

I was first drawn to it because it already meets requirement three — it includes fruit. And since it’s in loaf form, I knew it would take more kindly to swapping out half of the flour for whole wheat flour. (I chose to do a mix to keep it from getting too dense while also getting most of the fiber and nutrition the wheat variety brings.) Canola oil is already one of the healthier vegetable oils, sporting low saturated fat content and some Omega-3 fatty acids, so I only swapped half of it — substituting one 1/4 cup for the same volume of unsweetened applesauce. And obviously, I kept the sugar content at full tilt. I’m not a monster.

Bonus view of my new country house kitchen!

Now I didn’t remember to take a photo of the end product, but it was delicious indeed. And while no one could argue it was the healthiest dessert, knowing that some wholesome goodness went into it made me feel a little less guilty about having a slice of gingerbread smothered with beef stroganoff for breakfast the next morning. (No, I’m not pregnant; I just have unique tastes in food.)

It’s only December 17, so why am I giving you my holiday post today? I’ll tell you why: because I won’t be anywhere near a computer when actual Christmas week rolls around. Ben and I will be on our honeymoon down under, putting all my good advice aside and consuming our weight in beachside cocktails and kangaroo burgers. Don’t worry: I’ve arranged a guest post to publish on Boxing Day to give you a little taste of running inspiration while I’m out of pocket.

In the meantime, have a very happy holiday, folks! I know I will — I’m seeing this babe during a layover in Hawaii tomorrow!



The Land of Milk and Honey

I used to think my favorite food was butter.

As a small child, I vividly remember sitting in front of an open refrigerator with my hand in the Land O’ Lakes, scooping palm full after palm full into my open mouth. And you wonder how I became a husky 5th grader.

It’s true though. Sweet and salty and creamy all at once, butter was the perfect food, and I melted it onto everything from the age of two forward: cinnamon toast, air-popped popcorn, microwaved mushrooms, spoons. I was a regular Andy Dwyer.

But now that I’m a grown-up with some concept of nutrition and caloric intake, I can proudly say that my culinary tastes have evolved. Although I will always have a soft spot for it in my heart — a soft spot that it undoubtedly helped cause — butter is no longer my favorite food. (Don’t worry, folks, I’m not going to jump on the 2013 hipster bandwagon and tell you my favorite food is kale, although roasted, sea-salted kale IS freaking delicious.)

It’s honey.

I love you, honeybear.
I love you, honeybear.
I know, I know, not the nutritional powerhouse you were expecting, considering honey is at first glance little more than glorified table sugar. But it’s so much more than that. As far as sweeteners go, it’s the least processed one, and unlike white sugar, it contains trace minerals and antibiotic properties. (Take that, Domino!). More importantly for this seasonal sufferer, honey made from local bees can reportedly help fight allergies, which is one major perk of purchasing at the farmers’ market instead of the grocery store.

About 75 percent of my honey intake comes in the form of food: drizzled over yogurt or stirred into herbal tea or whisked into salad dressings, and let’s not forget honey-filled baklava, which I clearly didn’t eat enough of this month in Greece.

Take me back.
Take me back.
But many people don’t realize honey also has non-food uses. Because of those antibiotic properties, it also makes an effective on-the-spot face cream, according to a(n arguably hippy) dermatologist I saw earlier this year who suggested Manuka honey face masks for particularly problematic skin. It sounded like wacky advice, but swapping out harsh chemicals for antibiotic-rich Manuka honey (available at vitamin and specialty stories) has weirdly made a difference in my skin. Between that and the coconut oil I used to wash it off, and my face routine is the most delicious concoction out there.

You knew you were going to look in my medicine cabinet at that dinner party anyways. I've just saved you a step.
You were going to look in my medicine cabinet at that dinner party anyways. I’ve just saved you a step.
With honey such an integral part of my nutritional as well as beauty routine, it only seems right to integrate it into my running as well. So when I went to JackRabbit Sports to purchase some new mid-run nutrition last week ahead of my planned 17 miler and stumbled upon Honey Stinger sports waffles (yes, you heard me right, Leslie Knope), I leapt with joy. Instead of throwing back energy gels of corn syrup or whatever other processed sugars they must be filled with to maintain by carbohydrates during marathon training, why not swallow ounces of the golden nectar itself?

So I bought a honey waffle and brought it with me on my last long run, and while it was delicious, it wasn’t the easiest-to-consume mid-run snack I’ve ever carried. It was essentially two thin cookies held together by honey, and as I tried to throw it back halfway up the West Side Highway after having carried it for the better part of two hours, I lost at least 1/6 of my crumbled snack to the pull of gravity. Still, I like the concept, and I’m planning on going back to try some of the brand’s other honey-filled, less awkward to consume products. I’ll report back.

Until then, I’ll keep doing my part to keep the world’s bee population (and diabetes doctors) in paychecks. Thanks, honey!

What’s your favorite food? Rare steak, caesar salad and peach cobbler are also appropriate answers, since, let’s be honest, they all tie with honey for me. [But you can’t eat a steak during a marathon. Or can you? Calling Ron Swanson! P.S. I’ve been watching a lot of Parks and Rec, if you can’t tell.]


Pour Some Sugar on Me

If you turned on the TV yesterday, you were probably bombarded with news reports touting a new study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that shows Americans are eating entirely too much sugar.

If you didn’t turn on the TV yesterday, $5 says you either don’t have a TV or the opposable thumbs to turn it on.

Full disclosure: I'm reusing this photo.  Also full disclosure: don't feed Keira after midnight.
Full disclosure: I’m reusing this photo. Also full disclosure: don’t feed Keira after midnight.

According to the report, which was the headline feature on every 24-hour news station during my morning workout, a whopping 71.4 percent of U.S. adults get more than the recommended 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars in foods and drinks. And surprise surprise, an elevated sugar intake is closely correlated with cardiovascular disease and, you guessed it, death. You know it always ends in something sexy like death or celebrity rehab if the top journalists in the world are using their unparalleled access to the American public to broadcast it on repeat.

As I watched identical news segments about the report on NBC and CBS while I searched in vain and irony for the channel airing Cupcake Wars, I couldn’t help but disregard the warning as something that doesn’t really apply to me. I don’t drink sugary sodas. I don’t keep Oreos in the house. I only add Splenda to my oatmeal and soda water to my vodka, and I couldn’t even tell you the last time I purchased a candy bar. Stolen one from a child? That’s another story.

I don’t even drink fancy, sugar-laden coffee drinks. A regular cup of joe with almond milk, or maybe the occasional skim latte, is plenty for me. Sure, this fat-free latte from the Upper East Side may be the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s still cloyingly, adorably sugar-free.

photo (96)

In my mind, the “Americans eat too much sugar” story is a story about a different kind of America than the one I live in: the kind of America that supports Duck Dynasty, thinks Gushers are a vegetable and pours Mountain Dew over its Fruit Loops.

Given my daily kale intake and infrequent donut consumption, I figured there was no way that TV segment on elevated sugar intake was meant for health-conscious, cookie-avoiding, water-swigging viewers like me.

But I thought I’d check my daily food log on myfitnesspal just in case. You know, in order to celebrate my superior nutritional choices and give myself a good ol’ pat on the corn-syrup-less back.

And what do you know?

My daily sugar intake exceeds the recommended amount at least twofold, and most days, by much, much more.

photo (1)
Why yes, I do get a lot of fiber. Eat your heart out, boys.

I have to step back and apologize here, Mountain Dew enthusiasts. Here I was acting all high and mighty given my soda-free lifestyle, when really, I’ve been bathing in the sweet stuff just like the rest of you.

At first glance, I couldn’t figure out how it was possible I’m taking in 70 to 100 grams of sugar on average every day vs. the recommended 30 to 50 grams for my body and lifestyle. On Tuesday, a day in which I cooked all my meals myself and limited my caloric intake to 1,400, when it came to sugar, I somehow managed to throw back a whopping 149 grams. A spoon full of sugar helps more sugary things go down, apparently.

To be fair, a large percentage of my sugar consumption is tied to fresh fruits and whole grains and low-fat dairy — the “natural” kind of sugar that isn’t the scary added stuff the study was warning about. Also, I may have indulged in the free office snack room Tuesday with a bag of 100-calorie fudge stripe cookies, pushing my counts over the top.

But beyond that, it seems added sugars are still sneaking into my diet with me none the wiser. Take, for example, by daily fruit-on-the-bottom Chobani fat-free yogurt. I eat it for the high protein and low calorie count, but I finally took a second to read the sugar section of the nutrition label, and its 16 grams – or about half what I’m supposed to eat in an entire day – vs. 4 grams for plain. The single-serving coconut waters I drink after a particularly hard workout? Another 16 grams. I never beat Number Munchers, but I can see how this adds up.

The truth is, I think I do eat healthier than 80 percent of Americans, and I’m not really sure I’m willing to give up my last few indulgences in an effort to further curb my sugar intake. But I’m hoping at least keeping sugar on the brain as I make culinary decisions should help me be a little more mindful of my problem.

In fact, in four short months, my homegirl Kat and I will be gearing up once more for the Governor’s Ball music festival, and while I’m generally down for helping out my neighbors, when Andre 3000 asks me to lend him some sugar, I’m think I’m going to have to politely decline.

Is sugar something you eat in moderation? What are your tricks for keeping your intake down, especially when the easy things to cut out like soda and poptarts and sugar cubes are already long gone?