Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Post-Olympic Revelations

The grace, speed, flexibility, and skill of the athletes at this year's London Olympics were insanely inspirational! Some of these athletes have muscles bulging out of places I always thought impossible to sculpt! Even more impressive was the time they put into preparing and the sheer will and look of determination emanating from their whole beings, from facial expressions to flexed muscles right before competing--extraordinary!

Now, a layman can do one of two things while watching these incredible athletes: 1) cry at the thought of never being able to achieve such superhuman abilities, or 2) jump up off the sofa and spring into action towards becoming a better version of herself! Of course, there may be that third options of complete indifference, but my scenario works better with the two ideas presented...

On the final day of the Olympics, my husband and I were scheduled to run a 5 km race through Toronto's beautiful Distillery District. Well, not so much through as on the roads surrounding it, but the fact remains, a 5 km race was to be run! I got a bit busy (lazy? distracted? insert appropriate adjective here depending on the day!) after our last race in April. I still ran, but no where near as much as I should have to continue improving. So, come race day I didn't have grandiose ideas of chiselling tons of time off my previous race time. It'd be great if I could at least be on par with it, actually.

I've always loved running, and I've always done it recreationally. I was on the cross country team in high school, and while I was no where near the top of the pack, I always enjoyed it. I never ran to beat anyone else, I just loved how strong I felt. Over the years, I haven't been as consistent with it. I've been more of a cyclist than a runner, but even then, the cycling was more of a mode of transportation to and from work and farmers' markets rather than through beautiful trails and parks. The truth of it is, I've always been somewhat afraid of competition. By nature, the stars peg me as super competitive (Scorpios are supposed to be tough and want to win win WIN!). But I was always more comfortable just getting lost in the rest of the crowds, being an average runner, swimmer, basketball player, softball player, etc. I was never really comfortable with the attention it all garnered. I'm not going to psycho-analyze here, I'm just saying that it is what it is. In fact, the fear of competing actually led me to faking an ankle injury one dumb and youthful year in grade nine at a cross country meet. I actually panicked at how many people showed up to watch people run! What was that about? The facial expressions of runners are not the most attractive! Sweat and smells aside, there are wrinkled foreheads, squinted eyes, massive whale-like exhalations, and so much more! It just freaked me out! I'm embarrassed by it, but I was 14 and have no excuse except that I WAS 14!

As ashamed as I am to even admit that I did that, I think it's more important to own the fear as an adult. I think so much of what we shy away from as adults are from patterns we became comfortable with as kids, and the only way to break out of those bad patterns is to own them as choices from a former, younger, inexperienced self and to just move on. Listening to so many of the stories from Olympic athletes and knowing that some of them (a lot of them!) had such crazy obstacles and fear but still pushed on made them so much more human (although I believe that many of them have some superhero qualities!), and it made me want to be so much better at the things I love doing.

So, on race day, when the gun sounded, I took off and just felt immense gratitude for each part of my body and mind that allowed me to be fully present and able to run. During one run with my husband while we were training, I found myself unable to control the urge and yelled out, "Come on lungs!" And then we found ourselves laughing. Steve followed that with "Come on legs!" and the laughter continued (he had some running injuries that he was trying to work through). On race day, I silently thanked my body and remembered to have fun with it, and I reminded myself that no one was there to watch me specifically, so the pressure was off to impress anyone but ME.

A few days prior to this race, one of the Olympic athletes had run a 5 km in 13 minutes. Thirteen minutes!!! I laughed as this thought crossed my mind while I ran, and when my time came in at 36 (37? I can't remember exactly) minutes, I was just grateful that my legs carried me through.

Now that the fear is (almost) gone, I find that I'm suddenly training every day. The only person I'm competing against is myself. I'm aiming for 35 minutes or less for the next race, and then 30 minutes, and so on, but in the interim, I'm just having a great time feeling present and at peace after forgiving my younger self's inadequacies. Eventually, I'll run 10 km, and then a half marathon. A friend of mine just did the Tough Mudder competition and rocked it! As hard as it was, she went in knowing her strengths and weaknesses and played to those, and came through it feeling it was an experience to be treasured. I'm not sure I'm there, but my options are definitely expanding with every run I do.

So, thank you Olympic athletes and athletes everywhere for helping me release the fear! Whether it's a 5 km, a marathon, the Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder, I realize now that some fear is normal. To quote the amazing gramma from PARANORMAN:

 "It's alright to be scared, as long as it doesn't change who you are."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A little help from my friends...

As much as I love to stay active and eat well, sometimes my motivation wanes. I'm sure it happens to the best of us, but being a nutritionist somehow makes me feel even worse because I know what bad decisions can do on a cellular level--toxins building up and causing illness, mood swings, and digestive problems, just to name a few. PLUS I end up feeling guilty because, well, I'M A NUTRITIONIST! Aren't we immune to temptation and comfort foods? Don't we possess some super-human enzyme that makes it so!?!

Alas, no, we don't. It helps that I have a passion for good, healthy food. It also helps that I've always been active, but I do have habits from my youth that creep back into my psyche now and then. So, what do I do? What strategies do I have in place when these moments of weakness occur? Well, I find tapping into a community of other healthy-habit-driven people helps. Friends to work out with or discuss new recipes or environmental issues with, and with the innovation of new media (not-so-new anymore, but I catch on a bit slowly!), I also find tools such as twitter to be motivating. And it's not just about healthy foods and activities, it's about finding inspiration through other peoples' accomplishments. In their stories, I'm reminded of my own, and the energy allows us to fuel each other in a positive, momentum-building way.

When I climbed Fuji-san 10 years ago, the feeling after I reached the top was pure elation. Not just at the beauty of this great mountain, nor was it just the gorgeous sun rising overhead. It was the feeling that my body, exactly as it was (regardless of my perception of its imperfections), had enabled me to do this amazing thing. I didn't hear a chatter or faults or criticisms in my head; there was just silent gratitude. When I hear other peoples' tales of having achieved great things, whether they surpassed physical or emotional barriers, it takes me back to Fuji-san and reminds me of how awesome the human body is and how it wants, above all else, to survive. It fights for us, and so I'm reminded of how worthy of respect it really is.

People can improve their well-being and habits at any point in time that they choose to do so. Once upon a time, getting together with one of my dearest friends involved gorging on junk while hanging out. Of course, we've been friends for more than 25 years, so one might think it would be a habit impossible to break, but we now have a variety of activities that we do when we get together, one of our favourites being working out! To this day we laugh about how I thought, at the naive age of 10, that she was only friends with me because I always had ridiculous amounts of chocolate in my house (those who've read my previous blogs know that between my grandfather working at a chocolate factory and my father being a mechanic for Beckers', chocolate was in my home in abundance at all times), and here we are now, sharing endorphins on a whole other level and loving it! Her triumphs, as well as everyone else's I hear, lift me up and make me want to do and be better.

So, my motivation in times of weakness? Reminders from everyone else around me about how amazing people are in their own rights, and how with the right combination of laughter, a positive attitude, and an open mind, we really are boundless creatures with the ability to surpass what we once thought were our wildest dreams. I want to feel amazing travelling this road with my loved ones, and remembering how amazing this road can be makes me want to be as healthy as possible so I can enjoy the ride.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Smells like Summer!

I love Farmers' Markets! There's something about the atmosphere of them, not to mention the aroma of fresh fruits and vegetables, that feels like home. Truly wonderful. This is the week that the local ones start up again in my neighbourhood, and this is really exciting for me.

There's also a real sense of pride in helping local farmers out. These are hard-working individuals who put everything they have into the produce and other items they're selling. There's a genuine feeling of community and very often the individuals selling the goods are friendly and kind.

Last year, I was able to find homemade dog biscuits made without of the common allergens found in commercially made ones, and while this is becoming more common even in chain pet stores, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling at the thought of a fellow animal lover baking for other animals.

So, here's the link to find the markets in Toronto closest to you!


Sunday, May 6, 2012


While cleaning my kitchen/fridge the other day, it occurred to me that I've grown to rely on a few steadfast ingredients in my life. In a moment of reflection, I also realized how much different the food items in my fridge and cupboards are now than my "self" of years ago. I'm by no means perfect. But it feels good to know I've come to a place in my life where I'm no longer intimidated by creating new dishes. Really, being of Greek descent, I always thought I should've popped out of the womb with mad kitchen skills and somehow failed as a result of not being more of a natural. The skills I have I've worked hard to attain, and continue to do so. As a nutritionist, I know the excellent properties of many foods, but learning how to put them all together has been a constant growing experience. In fact, my food and nutrition students often give me ideas of new cooking methods! I avoided okra for many years because of their texture until one of my students gave me some insight into how to make them less slimy (drying them after washing and adding a liberal amount of lemon!). My lack of "natural" cooking abilities has, in the past, has led me to be a bit of a "lazier" (but still healthy!) eater. So, while I vary my diet regularly to keep things fresh and nutrtious, there are a few things I would be lost without. Here is a small list:

Matcha--This powdered green tea is filled with antioxidants and is extremely tasty for those who enjoy an earthier flavour. I use a tablespoon of it in my smoothies or dairy-free lattes, and I sometimes add it to my gluten-free pancakes. I was first introduce to it during a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and found its bitteness a bit overwhelming on its own at first, but now I can't live without it!It's a fantastic way to energize in the morning. I keep it in the fridge to preserve its freshness.

Ruth's Chia Goodness--This is a gluten-free mixture of chia seeds and many other delights, depending on the one I buy. My favourite is the Cranberry Ginger mix, which (other than the three obvious ingredients in its namesake) has other goodness such as pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, hulled hemp seeds, organic cane sugar, currants, and Celtic sea salt. It's a non-gmo'd product, and the beauty of chia seeds is that they their protein and fantastic essential fats are liberated when they become wet, so it's not necessary to ground them, like flax seeds. This product's super versatility means I can eat it as I would a cold or hot cereal, or I add it to salads, smoothies, or even my pancakes! It adds an extra kick of fibre, too, so I don't think twice about using it as often as the urge strikes! Keep it refridgerated once it's opened to keep the nuts and seed fresher for longer.

Coconut Oil--This not only adds a sweet flavoury goodness to stirfries, pastas, or pretty much anything else, I will use this oil to cook with because it has an extremely high cooking point, so I don't worry about its properties turning carcinogenic. PLUS it's great for the brain! Remember, "fat" is NOT a bad word when it's the good kind. In fact, it's NECESSARY!

Umeboshi Plums--These Japanese fermented plums are super alkalanizing, so I keep them around either for mornings after I've over-indulged, or I add one to my rice dish to flavour it up (probably a throw-back to my days living in Japan).

Greek Yogurt--It tastes like dessert, even though it's much lower in sugar than regular yogurt! Many people have an intolerance to lactose because they don't have the enzyme that makes it possible to digest this milk sugar, so plain Greek yogurt can sometimes be enjoyed by people with an intolerance to dairy. I wouldn't go crazy with it and have tonnes, though, because it is high in fat. It's also high in live bacterial cultures (probiotics!), and I eat it any way I can! Sometimes on its own or as a side, sometimes mixed with nuts/seeds/fruits, or I'll add it to a rice pasta dish to give it a creamy flavour. My favourite way to eat it this time of year is with a ripe avocado...creamy, heavenly goodness. And I will give a small amount to Riley (our bassett hound). He loves it! When he had swollen lymph glands from an infection, I fed it to him for about a week consistently and he got better! My vet laughed at me, but it worked.

Rice or Almond Milk--I ALWAYS have one of these in my fridge. I love my lattes, and I use it for anything as a substitute for a recipe that may call for milk. It won't have the hormones or antibiotics that are often found in milk, and it's great for anyone who might be lactose intolerant. It comes with "peace" of mind and a lot of yumminess! Just be sure to get one that does NOT contain carrageenan. Carrageenan is added to a lot of non-fat/low-fat foods, as well as milk substitutes, as a thickener, and it can cause digestive upset as it can coat the intestinal walls and make nutrient absorption more difficult.

So, these are just a few of my favourite staples. The more I type, the more I know this list can go on, but if any of these aren't on your grocery lists yet, try one and see how it goes. Not everything is for everyone, that's for sure, but if you're looking to kick things up a notch and want to try something different, then I say go for it! Experimentation is how each of these foods came into my life, and I'm better (and healthier!) for it!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Morning Rush

Anyone who knows me well KNOWS that I love to eat...and I also love quick, easy meals. Healthy and fast is a necessity , so I thought I'd post a couple of no brainer breakfast ideas for people who feel the crunch in the morning. It's good for anyone, really, but it also offers a healthy option for parents on the go in the morning, co-ordinating car-pools and the like, rather than ignorning their own wellness and grabbing a coffee and bagel on the go (which only lends itself to temporary energy and a quick caffeine and sugar crash follows).

I've never mastered the art of time management, so I struggle with preparing meals the night before work. That leaves me trying to get meals together in the morning for breakfast AND lunch. My own fault, I know, but I'm working on it! Tools that really help? My blender and mini-thermos! As I'm preparing a yummy smoothie for breakfast, I've got oats cooking on the stove. Even if they're not completely done before I'm ready to leave, I can put them in my thermos and the heat retention finishes cooking it for me by lunch time!

Smoothie (usually prepared while I've got oats cooking on the stove)

banana (1/2) or avocado
leafy green (options? spinach, kale, bok choy, romaine or boston lettuce, arugula)
blueberries (about 1/2-1 cup--I use frozen this time of year)
almond or rice milk (1.5-2 cups, depending on appetite and time till next meal)
matcha (1-2 teaspoons)
cocoa powder (2 teaspoons--100% fair trade cocoa from camino is my fave)
Ruth's cranberry ginger chia mix (2 tbsp--chia with ginger works, too)
walnuts or almonds (or nut butter--3-6 if raw nuts; 1 tbsp if nut butter)
peppermint oil (1-2 drops)
cinnamon (to taste)

Of course, you can add or substitute ingredients as you please. Really, I switch it up from time to time depending on what's on hand, sometimes tossing in sesame or other seeds, or whatever other berries are in my kitchen.

Blend for 2 minutes, and presto! You have a delicious, healthy, nutrient-filled breakfast on the go! I have one of those plastic (BPA-free, of course!) smoothie cups with a straw that I find indispensable for my smoothie routine. I'll take it with me on the subway or in the car if I don't have time to drink it before leaving in the morning.

The benefits of this smoothie are immense! It's a medley of protein, omegas 3 and 6, antioxidants (blueberry-chia-matcha combo packs a punch!), fibre, vitamin A, C, K, and folate, not to mention the anti-bacterial properties of cinnamon! It all takes about 5-8 minutes to prepare, start to finish. And I have a 15 year old blender that does the trick! No fancy tools required.


steel-cut oats (.5-1 cup)
blueberries (2 tbsp)
cinnamon (to taste--I'm usually quite generous with my cinnamon inclusions!)
pumpkin or sesame seeds (or 2 tbsp Ruth's cranberry ginger chia mix)
almond milk (2-2.5 cups)

Put all together in small sauce pan on stove to boil, then turn to medium once boil is reached. I eventually turn it to low (2-3 on my stove) while I'm preparing my smoothie, feeding our dog, and getting my things together. In 15-20 minutes, I've got breakfast AND lunch ready to go! Having oats for lunch is a healthy way to keep energy up later in the afternoon, plus it helps stave off after work snacking because the fibre keeps you full longer.

Generally, people require 35-50 grams of fibre a day, and the standard North American has about 10-15 grams. There's potentially 20-25 grams just in these two meals alone!

Please don't skimp on breakfast. I know it sounds cliche, but it's so important to get your day started right. Without the proper nourishment, your body and mind can only hand so much stress throughout the day. Show your body the love and respect it deserves by treating it with respect through your food choices. It doesn't take a lot of effort, and your body and mind will reward you with the tools you need to get through your day successfully!

Monday, January 23, 2012

To Be Or Not To Be...A Vegetarian...

Even as a youngster, I felt like I was a vegetarian at heart. As a child, although I ate meat (being Greek-Cypriot, that meant all sorts of meat!), a twinge of guilt always followed. I suspect it came from the time I'd spent a few months in Cyprus with my grandparents on their farm. One of the duties I shared with my brother was looking after a few of the animals. One very special animal was a baby goat, lovingly named "Moro" ("kid" in Greek...not original, but adorable, right?). After months of feeding, caressing, and loving this creature, time came for us to come back home to Toronto, and the night before our departure, a feast was prepared in our honour. Any guess as to what the main course was? The greatest symbol of love for my grandmother was to feed us well, so although her intentions were awesome, that experience led to a seed having been planted in my little heart and soul.

My juvenile self didn't realize just how much the experience of Moro being sacrificed for us affected me. As an urban, North American kid, I equated the word "animal" with "pet." The guilt of having been the root at Moro's death was so powerful that by the time I was 14, I attempted to become a vegetarian. Then I got a part time job after school working at Harvey's. The food was free, and my first stint as a vegetarian lasted 2 weeks. The kid in me, and the offer of free food was too much for me to stick with it.

Then, in my early 20s, I decided I was going to try again. I quit eating meat! I felt proud of myself, and it was easy! Of course, anything feels "easy" when you don't think there's any preparation required. All I did was stop eating meat. I never learned how to be a healthy vegetarian and was oblivious to the consequences of not substituting the lost protein and other nutrients. I remained a (bad, uneducated) vegetarian for more than a decade. I put on about 30 pounds and didn't feel fantastic. Of course, I ate fruits and vegetables, but I really didn't put any thought into what I was eating, only that I was eating at all. I ate refined starches, and pasta became my staple. Oops. It seems so elementary that I'm almost embarrassed to even admit that! But it was my reality.

Then I started studying nutrition. Most of my life I had struggled with an eating disorder and needed to develop a healthier relationship with food, regardless of my ethical motivations to become a vegeterian. Add to that ill family members and a health care system I was losing faith in, and I became an avid nutrition student. I was mortified at how badly I'd been treating myself. Although I learned that it was possible to be healthy and a vegetarian, I incorporated meat back into my diet in order to quickly repair some of the damage I'd caused (malnourishment, low blood pressure, and iron deficiency, for starters), starting with fish and bison.

Here I am, a few years later, and I'm once again treading on the cusp of vegetarianism. I haven't made the commitment fully. Meat still occasionally graces my plate (especially at family functions), but I'm at a different, healthier and more secure place in my life now. I'm fully aware of the all of the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle on the environment and economy. My main motivation will always be the lack of respect and ill-treatment of animals by most of the meat processing industry--even as a young vegetarian I used to tell people that if I'd been alive a couple of hundred years ago, it would never have occurred to me to become a vegetarian because the respect that went along with using the flesh of an animal for nourishment was inherent. There was an air of gratitude when an animal was offered up for a meal. It's the reason I would never fault a compassionate farmer (like my grandparents) for eating the animals they raised.

It all really comes down to two things: 1) being educated about how to properly nourish yourself, and 2) listening to your body's needs. Although I wish I knew this 15 years ago, It's Never Too Late to Feel Great!!!