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Meditation and self-improvement…

I sleep like crap. Rarely do I wake up and feel rested. My Jawbone UP shows me consistently getting 5.5-6.5 hours of sleep per night, about 40% of it deep sleep. This leaves me prone to craving sugary foods and making bad decisions. Sleep deprivation also does nasty stuff to our hormones, leading to “decreased glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, increased evening concentrations of cortisol, increased levels of ghrelin, decreased levels of leptin and increased hunger and appetite“.

Clearly, I need a strategy that is going to reduce stress in my life and help me to sleep more and better. Having recently reduced the amount of sugary foods I’m eating (I’m in week 2 of a 3-week sugar detox), adding heaps of magnesium to my diet, and putting serious effort into getting into bed around 10pm every night, I haven’t really moved the needle much in terms of the amount of sleep I’m getting, nor on the quality of that sleep.

So I’m casting about for different strategies for managing the stress in my life, in the hopes that reducing stress will allow me to sleep deeper and longer. Exercise seems to increase awakeness, and given that my schedule pretty much forces me to work out in the late afternoon or evenings, I have to be careful to time it so that I’m tired when I need to be. If I work out after 8pm, it will mean I’m up until 11pm, no matter what else I do.

We’ve also cut back on the caffeine: I found that I was taking two or three cups a day, sometimes later into the morning. Gotta cut that crap out.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try meditation as an approach to managing stress and setting myself up for better sleeping. I’m working through Victor Davich’s 8 Minute Meditation — I really like this book because it has pulled all of the “woo” out of the meditation practice. (I am unremittingly allergic to woo, having spent far too much time in California and other locales where new-age hippie dipshits engage in all kinds of sloppy language in an effort to redeem their otherwise senseless spiritualism.)

I’ve just started last night, having sat through my first 8 minute session. Frankly, it went far better than I expected it to go. I’m a fidgety person, and feared that there wasn’t a chance in hell that I was going to be able to sit still for 8 minutes. Trying to stay focused on the breathing, and not getting engaged by all of the distractions and spins that my mind wanted to put on the situation was difficult, but I felt it was worthwhile. I did roll right into bed afterwards, and I did fall quickly to sleep. I don’t think I can say that I slept better, but I felt better when I woke up this morning…so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Because I’m so constitutionally opposed to things like this, I’m trying to really enforce the new habit by using Jerry Seinfeld’s Build A Chain approach: simply put, if you want to learn a new daily habit, do something of it every day. Each day that you succeed in doing the new thing, mark off the day on a big wall calendar. As you build consecutive days of success, you build a chain, and that chain becomes something you want to keep building — you don’t want to break it.

Today, my chain is one link. I plan to add another link tonight. (I’m also using Meditation Timer on my Android phone to time my sessions, and, not inconsequently, keep a log of my consecutive days — my “chain” of new habit).

I also found an interesting take on handling self discipline and self-regard in a comment thread on Reddit. (Read it here if you can take the Reddit-style of discourse, but I’ve summarized it below):

  • No zero-days: every day, do SOMETHING towards your goal, even if it’s just a little bit. (See the Seinfeld “Build A Chain” approach above)
  • Respect the Three You’s:
    • The Past You (or, Younger You): the person who, yesterday, made a good choice that set Present You up for today…
    • The Present You: the person who gets the chance to do something cool for their best friend…
    • The Future You: because, tomorrow? You’re going to wonder what that Past You was thinking…
  • Forgiveness: mostly, of yourself. You know better, you knew better. Whatever. People fuck up. Get over it and get busy unfucking it.
  • Exercise and Books: really, this is just about self-improvement. Shouldn’t require an explanation here. Grow your brain like you grow your bod.
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The Chicken Experiment…

Necessity has mothered a new invention for us — “How to do Paleo on a budget”. This week, we were forced to ratchet down seriously on expenditures, and wandered over to SR (a large chain supermarket with a reputation for significantly lower costs) to do our weekly shopping.

One of the first things we noticed was a remarkable difference in the price of chicken. For the last several months, we’d been buying whole chickens at WF (a popular organic grocery notorious for higher costs) and WM (sort of an outsized Trader Joe’s, with a similar crowd management problem [editor’s aside: why do certain establishments seem to create an environment of entitlement and hostility?] but not nearly the focus on packaged food that TJ’s makes).

We’d been using the whole chicken in this Peruvian Style Grilled Chicken with Green Sauce (the recipe pretty much describes how to grill the chicken perfectly), and had found that we were happiest with the flavor and freshness of the chicken we were getting at WF (not incidentally, the most expensive, too).

About a month ago, I spent a week down in Costa Rica, during which I had a meal at a soda (the Costa Rican equivalent of home cookin’, or comida tipical), which featured some chicken that had been killed and butchered literally as we were walking in the door. This was, hands down, the best chicken I’d tasted in a long time (and the guys I was eating with concurred).

Since returning from Costa Rica, Jenn and I shifted our chicken consumption to buying bulk packs of thighs (our favorite cut) so that we could get a few more meals out of the single round of cooking–here, we’d bought ten thighs (two packs of five) for roughly $15 from WM. (This was us planning to eat leftovers. You have no idea how alien this concept is for us, and an interesting bellwether point to underscore just how much we’ve already changed our outlook on food.) Jenn uses Amy’s Moroccan Chicken recipe over at PaleoCupboard.com (and quick side-note: Amy’s stuff is LA BOMBA, in the past few weeks, most of the recipes we’ve cooked have been from her site). The meal we had with this chicken and this recipe was exquisite: the skins crisped up nicely and the meat was succulent and deeply flavored.

However, back to our most recent shopping trip at SR, were able to buy ten thighs for a little over $5, and a pack of six wings for another $4: this would easily provide us not only with a nice dinner, but several lunches for the following week.

Jenn said that “…[C]leaning this chicken was harder: when chicken is first pulled out of a package, it generally has a certain level of sliminess that can be easily washed off under some cold water. Then the chicken is patted dry, with the skin noticeably dry to the touch. With the SR chicken, there was definitely more fat content in the skin, and it didn’t dry as cleanly. Also, there was visibly more blood and clots throughout the meat, with a couple of the wingtips so bloody as to be almost black.”

Cooking it was also a bit more difficult, although this may be more a factor of the level of crowding and/or my own relative skill on the grill. Even though all the data says that I only need to cook chicken to 165 degrees to be done, I tend to cook the darker cuts to 180-ish, with a focus on getting the skin nice and crispy. For the SR chicken, I found that the fat didn’t render as nicely and the skins just didn’t want to crisp up, even though the meat was registering at 180 degrees or higher.

Taste-wise, it was, well, chicken. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t awesome either, and that got us to thinking that maybe we should methodically go back through both WM and WF, and buy the same amount of chicken, note the price differences, and then attempt to cook each batch up the same way. Then, as a final cap on the experiment, find a source for fresh kill, and see if we can run the same experiment for that batch as well. My expectation is that the fresh-kill chicken should be remarkable, but probably too high in cost to be a weekly indulgence. What I’m more interested in is the practical, taste and cooking differences in the SR, WF & WM chicken.

Other notes: the SR chicken was packaged, from a known national brand. It would be interesting to find out the provenance of that chicken (when was it slaughtered, how long did it take to get to the store, what was its diet and caging standards, etc.) to the best extent that it can be known. And, obviously, to ask those questions of the other types of chicken, so that a full understanding of the costs and opportunities that each type of chicken presents. Because, really, if the fresh-kill chicken is not much remarkably different than the cheapest bulk chicken, then why spend the money? It would also be interesting to try the same experiment for other dishes and preparations, like the parboiled breast meat in my Paleo Pra Ram, or fried, roasted, or baked.

So yeah, The Chicken Experiment begins.

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Paleo Pra Ram (Thai Peanut Sauce)

Paleo Pra Ram (Thai Peanut Sauce)
Author: 
Recipe type: Dinner
Cuisine: Thai
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-6
 
Paleo version of the famous Thai peanut sauce dish. I've been working on this version for quite a while, making a variety of tweaks to make it as Paleo as I possibly can. There are a number of substitutions that I will call out and you can make your own decisions about whether or not to go that route, but I can say this: the fully Paleo approach is a wonderful sauce that totally satisfies my yearning for Pra Ram while still coming in fully Paleo...
Ingredients
  • 1 quart coconut water
  • 1 bunch fresh lemon grass stalks
  • 1 pound organic, skinless chicken breast
  • 1 cup broccoli
  • Cauliflower Rice (see separate recipe)
  • ⅛ cup demarara sugar
  • ½ cup organic sun butter (the blue label version from Trader Joes is best)
  • 4 tablespoons coconut aminos
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons coconut oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1-2 cups full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder (or more to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
Instructions
  1. First, the chicken: the best way to get good, tender chicken for this dish is to poach it. Pour the whole quart container of coconut water into a large pot, and then chop up the lemongrass into 1-inch chunks. (I also bash the lemongrass chunks with the heel of my knife, to bruise them and encourage them to give up their lovely juices.) Put the lemongrass into the pot with the coconut water and bring it to a boil. While the coconut water is coming up to heat, cut the chicken down to bite-sized chunks -- the important consideration here is that all of the chunks need to be roughly the same size and thickness.
  2. Once the coconut water is boiling, gently slide the chicken in and stir it so that the chicken is not sticking together. Bring the pot back to a boil, and then immediately remove the pot from the heat--DO NOT LET THE CHICKEN BOIL! Remove the pot from the heat as soon as it returns to a boiling temperature and set it on a cool burner. Cover, and continue with the rest of the preparation. (If you're feeling adventurous, instead of covering the pot, use your bamboo steamer to heat up the broccoli...otherwise, cook that as you normally would.)
  3. For the sauce, combine the sunbutter, demarara sugar, coconut aminos, water, coconut oil and garlic in a saucepan over low-medium heat. Stir well until bubbling, and then reduce the heat to low. When the sugar and sunbutter are completely dissolved, slowly stir in the coconut milk until it gets to the consistency you like (I prefer mine very thick, so I only use about 1 cup, but add more if you want yours thinner -- you can also thin the consistency by using light coconut milk with less milkfats in it). Add the curry powder and pepper flakes, stir, and simmer on low to thicken.
  4. BE CAREFUL! It burns very easily, and tastes nasty when burnt.
  5. By the time your sauce is done, your chicken should be ready -- strain the chicken out of the coconut water with a slotted spoon. Dish the chicken and broccoli over a bed of cauliflower rice, and ladle generously with the sauce.

Note that the sauce keeps well and tastes even better after being reheated!

PALEO HACKS:

  • Demarara Sugar: this replaces sucanat (organic whole sugar), and is really only in the recipe to help the sauce get to a consistency that is appropriate for the dish. The sugar can be eliminated altogether (add more sun butter) to make the dish Nazi Paleo style, or you can add more sugar if you like it sweeter. I have a sweet tooth, but find that just an 1/8 cup is enough to give the dish the right flavor and mouthfeel.
  • Sun Butter: this is non-negotiable. You can use peanut butter instead, but that takes it right off the Paleo reservation. Again, Trader Joes’ blue label organic sun butter tastes the most “peanut like” for this recipe; other brands can be more oily or salty.
  • Coconut Aminos: this replaces soy sauce, the measures are the same.

 

 

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The Paleo Adventure…

Not much action around here lately…but wait! I can explain!

It starts like it always does — with a conversation…I just don’t remember exactly when the conversation began.

Back when we lived down in Jacksonville, Florida, Jenn was teaching at Trapeze High Florida, and I was contracting during the day and playing a ton of poker evenings and weekends. Now, to be sure, most of this was “bar poker”, essentially free to play and with little cash incentive. I began playing JPA (the league) heavily just to get some live hand experience under my belt — it was great, and playing with (some of) the regulars was really fun.

But the down side was that it meant we were routinely out in the restaurants of Jacksonville almost every night of the week.

Let’s be clear about one thing: food in Jacksonville is HORRIBLE. The produce sucks: everything runs to mold within just a couple of days of buying it. That is, what little produce is available: even the farmers markets down there tended towards squash and citrus, and that was pretty much it.

But the restaurants — just AWFUL. Pretty much everything is fried within an inch of its life, getting battered and flashed and then served up with some damn mayonnaise-y thing to dip it in.

This was not good for our waistlines. I know I personally gained over 40 pounds in the brief time we were in Jax.

Jenn figured this out a lot sooner than I did, largely because it was impacting her comfort on the flying trapeze. So we tried making some adjustments — mostly, it involved just not playing poker as frequently. We tried to be more active: walking happened every once in while, but the only thing that would get us out in the heat was the promise of ice cream at the end of the walk — not exactly conducive to controlling weight. There was no hiking that was worthwhile, and we just couldn’t seem to get around the bend on some changes that would make us more active.

Somewhere along the way, Jenn happened into the notion of a Paleo “diet”. I’m using quotes around the word diet because the Paleo people will tell you this is not the verb form of diet (as in, I am dieting); rather, this is the word diet used like it is used to refer to the typical diet of a species. In this sense, the “Paleo diet” is a reference to a more primal way of choosing what we eat, selecting out the things that weren’t available to a paleolithic member of the species.

I’ve heard it described this way: assume you have a stick. You can eat whatever you can kill with that stick, knock out of a tree, or dig out of the ground. If it requires further processing in order to be digestible, then you can’t eat it.

This excludes some pretty wide swaths of food: grains, legumes, dairy and processed sugars are all right out — can’t have ’em. Seen from a 50,000 foot level, it looks kind of like the low-/no-carb or gluten-free protocols. But when you zoom in on some of those categories of exclusion, things start looking a little grim:

  • Grains: this sounds easier than than one might think. No bread, flour, cereals, muffins, rolls, pastas, gravies with flour, anything thickened with corn starch, etc., etc. You’d be surprised at how much “enriched flour” makes it into things that you have no idea contains flour. And then there’s other “grains” that you might not initially consider: rice, corn (and all its derivatives), and even the supposedly healthy “whole” grains — all of these are excluded.
  • Legumes: beans, soy (and all its derivatives), and (the killer for me), PEANUTS.
  • Dairy: milk, cheese, butter, yogurt — all excluded.
  • Processed sugars: table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, even artificial sweeteners are excluded.
  • Vegetable oils: this is a special category of processed stuff that needs to be excluded.
  • Alcohol: sad, but true (although there ARE Paleo-approved alcohols).

But wait! I hear you cry. Why exclude those things! Aren’t they supposed to be healthy? They’re on the Food Pyramid!

So here’s where we begin the conversation about the “Standard American Diet” (get it? SAD…)

Again, when one pulls back to the 50,000-foot level, it comes down to processing: all of the stuff that is excluded requires an enormous amount of processing in order to make it edible. Think about the things we have to do to soy to eat it. Think about all the phases flour goes through before it eventually becomes bread.

There are underlying nutrition and systemic justifications for many of the exclusions: consider the recent “boom” in gluten sensitivities. Our primary source of grains — wheat — must be milled and reduced down to “enriched flour” before it can become useful to us as food. And consider that term “enriched flour” — why does flour have to be “enriched” if it is supposedly good for us? The story behind that is fairly alarming.

As it turns out, wheat, barley and rye all contain gluten, which is generally expressed as “giving elasticity” to the foods that contain them: think about the binding proteins in bread dough before it is baked.

Consuming glutens causes the body’s immune system to express a number of antibodies: a buildup of these antibodies can create a number of sensitivities in many people, including “bloating, abdominal discomfort or pain, diarrhea, muscular disturbances and bone or joint pain” (thanks, Wikipedia!).

In a much more general sense, grains of all forms generally promote internal inflammation (bloat) and are very harsh on the upper and lower gastro-intestinal tract. Grains are implicated in damaging the small cilia within the intestines, and with putting our bodies in an “auto-immune” stance. There certainly is something to be said for the wide spectrum of auto-immune issues that seem to be arising as of late…

For me, the killers in the Paleo conversation are peanuts, dairy and SUGAR. But really, just SUGAR.

Still, when Jenn first started talking Paleo about a year and a half ago, I wasn’t opposed to eating Paleo meals, but I wasn’t at that point ready to make the full Paleo transition.

Fast forward to our move to Collingswood, and our recent retrenching of healthy lifestyles since we got married. As we have progressed through our transition, we have implicitly done a fair amount of the Paleo transition without really trying. Grains and legumes were fairly easy to eliminate (although I do truly miss peanut butter, sunflower butter has made an awesome stand-in). As Jenn has been doing most of the cooking of our shared meals, she’d been slowly finding replacements for the things that were excluded: coconut oil substituted in for vegetable oils, ghee for butter, that kind of thing. I had really shifted to a reduced-carb protocol, but still featured a lot of dairy (cheeses) in my daily intake, and fruit featured pretty strongly as well. I was also doing a lot of grazing, eating a low total number of calories, but consuming five or six mini-meals a day (and working out about 90 minutes 5-6 times a week).

Having discovered that we’d basically done 75% of the hard work already, we decided to try and make the full commitment to the Paleo lifestyle. There are a variety of approaches to doing this, all of them fairly dramatic in a few similar steps: clean out the kitchen of all excluded foods, make a meal plan and go shopping.

We decided to go with the “Whole30” 30-day challenge, in which we are supposed to eat a “super-clean” Paleo protocol for 30 days. In this approach, fruits and nuts are greatly reduced in their profile in the overall intake, with the focus being on mostly meats, some veggies, and just a few carbs. Fruits and nuts are ingredients, not courses (or full meals, like snacking). Around the same time that we began this adventure, we also found the Everyday Paleo Life Fit folks (Sarah Fragoso and Jason Seib). They also have a 21-Day Jump Start, which is a bit less militant than the “Paleo Nazis” over at the Whole30 side, but it is still pretty aggressive.

As an aside, both of these “challenge” programs are focused on getting someone started on the Paleo Lifestyle. They do it this way because IT IS HARD, and the best way to power through this is to pretty much go cold turkey.

The underlying physiological shift lies in pushing one’s metabolic flexibility. The Standard American Diet is rich in carbs and sugars that can be easily burned for energy or stored as fat. This is only one mechanism by which our metabolism provides energy for our bodies: it can also burn fat, and will also burn muscle mass (protein) under certain conditions (more on this later).

Overwhelmingly, because of the SAD, and the strong presence of carbs and sugars in our daily intake, most of us have a metabolism that is “carb-adapted”, generally defaulting to burning the available carbs for energy, and storing the excess.

This is how we get fat, because our Standard American Diet is enormously carb- and sugar-heavy.

If one eats according to the “food pyramid”, one can easily get 400-500 grams of carbs and sugars a day (if not much, MUCH more)! We typically only need 100-150 grams a day — so if our metabolisms are adjusted to be poised to use all of the available carbs for energy, then all of the excess carbs are simply stored as fats. (If you squint in just the right way, one can see the whole arc of the rise of processed foods meeting the needs of families who had both parents in the work force bolstered by high-carb/low-fat “recommendations” of the food pyramid as pretty much the perfect storm leading to our current epidemics of obesity, diabetes and auto-immune disorders — BLAME FEMINISM!)

Note that if we live in a constant excess of carbs on a day-to-day basis, then there never really is any need for the body to resort to the fat stores to provide energy. It’s pretty easy to see how this leads to an epidemic of obesity in this country…

But there are other, more pernicious aspects of the Standard American Diet, and more specifically, the Standard American Lifestyle.

Most of us don’t exercise, but those who do, seem to have seized on this notion that running (and other long forms of cardio) are the path to peak health. There are multiple bifurcations of this notion, most notably in the explosion in Crossfit programs and other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) such as the popular P90X and Insanity programs.

And then there’s the notion of the path to health being a low-fat, calorie-restricted diet. I won’t get into the whole low-fat/heart disease debate, other than to assert that the evidence is not there to support the thesis.

But consider the typical approach to health: low-fat/high-carb/calorie-restricted diet, long forms of high-intensity exercise, and all of that shoved into a high-stress, low-sleep lifestyle.

There is much more at work here than is immediately apparent. For example, the long forms of exercise. If we think about this in an ancestral health context, there really isn’t any survival mode that involves us running for 60 minutes (or 2-3 or more hours). Nor is there a mode linked to long forms of HIIT, whether it be dynamic workouts like Crossfit/P90X or more static group sessions like Spinning classes.

All of these scenarios are interpreted by the body as UNDUE stress, which causes the expression of the hormone cortisol in our endocrine systems.

As is turns out, cortisol is a key player in a couple of contributing factors to obesity:

  • Cortisol inhibits insulin: without getting deep into the science (as I’m not really qualified anyway), insulin is needed to process sugar for energy, by preventing the use of fat as an energy source (are you seeing a pattern here yet?). When we have high levels of cortisol in our systems, we are seen as “insulin resistant”. Being insulin resistant means that sugars aren’t used as energy, they are more readily stored as fats. It also means that the pancreas will produce higher levels of insulin, to deal with the general resistance caused by all of the cortisol, and as a response to the extreme levels of sugars we get as a part of the SAD. This becomes a desperately dangerous feedback loop in which the overworked pancreas is pumping out more and more insulin, that then goes about the job of removing excess sugars from the bloodstream, by storing it as fat.
  • Cortisol breaks down protein for energy: this can be understood in a survival context — if something is causing you to have to run for a seriously long time, it is likely that you will use up all of your available glucose for that initial energy burst. Because you likely won’t have the opportunity to go get some more sugar in you, the body moves to a protein-consuming mode. Explicitly, this is muscle emaciation. This is what is meant when someone says “You’re not burning fat, you’re burning muscle.” We especially see the perniciousness of this in people who are a following a caloric restriction and high cardio protocol: look at most of the people standing at the starting line of a marathon. You see mostly gaunt people with roundish bellies — they’ve consumed a large amount of their muscle mass in the effort to knock out that last 10-15 pounds sitting in their bellies, still living a high-carb low-fat lifestyle, and they all think that if they can just run far enough, fast enough, they’ll burn that last little bit of belly fat away. Sadly, their physiology just won’t allow it, as more miles and speed results in more stress and more cortisol production.

And it’s not just high-intensity, long-form cardio exercise that exacerbates cortisol production. Stress and poor sleep also result in more cortisol. And more cortisol means higher insulin resistance, greater muscle emaciation, and greater fat stores resulting from available sugars and carbs.

Cortisol keeps us chunky around the midsection.

In contrast, the Paleo protocol speaks to very different approach to peak health:

  • A diet rich in protein, good fats and sufficient calories
  • SLEEP!
  • A reduced exercise regimen, focused on low stress activities like walking, building strength by lifting heavy weights, with a very little bit of HIIT in very short bursts to improve EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption)
  • Mobility & form to reduce risk of injury

Stated plainly, it looks like this:

  • Eat as much as you need, mostly meats, good fats, some vegetables, fewer fruits and nuts. Watch hydration, electrolytes (salts), and some key nutrients like Vitamin D, Omega 3’s, magnesium and potassium.
  • Walk as much as you want. Don’t exercise (elevated heart rate/huffing and puffing) more than 4 times a week (most folks will be fine with 3 times a week). Mostly lifting heavy weights, some sprinting — keep sprinting down to 10-15 minutes maximum.
  • SLEEP! Manage stress: meditate, find strategies to explicitly reduce and shed stress.
  • Stretch. A lot.

The goal in this transition is to create more “metabolic flexibility”. Most of us eating and dieting the SAD way are pretty much locked into a carb-adapted metabolism, when what we really want is to burn excess fat via a “fat-adapted” metabolism. This comes about by reducing the profile of carbs and sugars in one’s diet, reducing stress (in order to limit the amount of cortisol in our systems, both to allow insulin to do its job using all of the available glucose and to then encourage the breakdown of fats for energy), and creating protein-building demands by lifting heavy weights. Ultimately, one’s metabolism should be sufficiently flexible to be able to shift from carb-adapted to fat-adapted as needed by the available intakes (and/or using up the “fats in the pantry” — your belly, butt and thighs…).

So, how did it go?

Jenn and I started our Whole30 on July 21: we cleaned out the kitchen, built a meal plan and went shopping. We also started following the Beginning Modules for workouts over at EPLifeFit.com.

In the first ten days, we both lost a serious amount of weight, even though we were both several months into our respective diets.

In the second ten days, we both stopped losing weight, and started bouncing up and down in numbers. Sometimes, the swings made absolutely no sense at all.

In the last ten days, I started losing pretty aggressively again, but she did not.

Now, to be sure, all of the Paleo protocols pretty much insist that you chuck your scale in the garbage, as it is not a meaningful measure of health. But because we were both participating in a Fatbet, it was necessary for us to at least keep tabs on our weight. I think this ultimately proved counterproductive for our personal commitment to the Paleo lifestyle.

As for the experience itself, I have to say that I feel great. There certainly were some struggles: I do not think that I ever really got through my sugar cravings, as I was consuming more fruit and Larabars than I think would be acceptable to the Whole30/21-Day Jump Start kind of programs.

Both Jenn and I don’t really feel like we were exercising enough. A part of this was just adjusting to the new protocol. Some of it is because of the specific regime we were following, we weren’t accustomed to (and we don’t have all of the necessary equipment). And some of it is just plain old habit: it’s tough to go from working out 5-6 days a week, 90-120 minutes at a time, down to 3 workouts a week for 30 minutes at most and not feel just a little bit lazy.

There are some ongoing struggles with portion control. I think both of us enjoyed getting out from under the caloric restriction regime, but we probably got a bit too enthusiastic about the “eat as much as you want” dictum. I know personally, the caloric restriction lifestyle causes me to wolf my food (like the starving man I am). It was tough to put the brakes on that mentality when I wasn’t limited to how much I was allowed to eat. I also know that Jenn felt like she was struggling because she was essentially keeping up with me, and I am a third larger than she is, so for her to get the same number of calories as me is a recipe for disaster.

Having said all that, we’re really happy with how things have gone. I still have some exploring of the boundaries to do, and I think I still need to confront that demon sugar. Jenn doesn’t have those same concerns — I will let her speak to the things that she thinks makes sense for her to adjust (more carbs? more fruit? I’m interested in her rationale for these things, but I will leave it to her to say what she wants to say)…

Going forward, I’m sticking with the Paleo lifestyle, but I definitely am going to be paying more attention to how much I’m eating. I don’t want to fall into the caloric restriction trap, but I also think it isn’t a good idea for me to be consuming 3000-3500 (or more) calories a day. I also want to be more diligent and focused on getting through the exercise protocol, and adding things like sprints (in the HIIT sense) into our regime. And walk more. And stress less — I really need to find mechanisms for managing and reducing stress.

I still have the sugar demon, and will need to find a way to eliminate that from my life, at least for a little while, so I can see what it’s like on the other side of the cravings — unfortunately, I think that as long as my body is creating cravings for sugars and carbs, I am still fundamentally in a carb-adapted metabolism, and I am not yet achieving my real fat-adapted potential. There may be a reintroduction of certain components: dairy (especially cheese and other forms of fats), and I have to figure out whether or not I have a real sensitivity to nuts (I seem to feel bloated after eating nuts, but I am not certain that I can attach that explicitly to nuts, or just to overeating in general). All of this requires some experimentation and exploration.

And that’s the real power of the transition: that we have the tools and the awareness to run these experiments and truly evaluate what the impact is. It is definitely interesting taking responsibility and control of these things, and therein lies the actual benefit. It will be interesting to see what the future brings.

But first, I think I need a steak.

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Farm Market Report: Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market

I work in downtown Philly, and I frequently take walks during lunch. One of my favorite haunts is Rittenhouse Square, a lovely (if somewhat overcrowded) park just a few blocks south of work. Jenn and I did the “Rocky Steps” walk last weekend, and as we headed back towards the train, we cut through the park, and saw signs for the farmers market (which we’d missed).

So I got up this morning and took the train over to Philly. After wandering around for a bit looking for an ATM, I did a quick pass through all of the stands. It definitely is more “market” than “farmers”, although there definitely were some excellent farm stands. My bounty is thusly:

God, help me, I'm taking pictures of produce...

God, help me, I’m taking pictures of produce…

A couple of lovely peaches & plums (OK, I’ve already eaten one of the peaches), some seriously peppery arugula, fairy tale eggplant, colorful sweet peppers, cippolini onions (I know, I know), white sweet potatoes and a couple of not-yet-overripe plantains are buried in the bottom there somewhere…not in the picture is a free-range whole chicken and a little over a pound of dungeness crab clusters (both frozen and not feeling particularly photogenic).

Whoops! I should back up: the plantains and sweet potatoes I found at Sue’s Produce Market, half a block north of Rittenhouse on 18th street. I discovered Sue’s during one of my lunch constitutionals, and grabbed the potatoes & plantains during my walk to the train station yesterday (which is what got me thinking about coming back today for the farmer’s market).

Prices seem pretty high for the produce: the onions were $5 for a pint. The peppers and eggplant were $3 per pint. The peaches and plums seemed kinda pricey, too, but I don’t recall the specifics. I liked the selection, and it was super crowded (with lots of puppies out), but I don’t think I’d make a special trip out to Philly just to make it to the market, but it may become a necessity in the off-season, as this market runs year-round!

Apparently, they also run a mini-market mid-week (Tuesday) which is seasonal: I may start stopping out here during the week to help fill in the gaps in our shopping as they become apparent.

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Watermelon Granita,The Recipe

GranitaWhoa, it’s hot! And humid! You know you are on the East Coast in the middle of summer when walking outside causes your glasses or sunglasses to fog over. OK, enough complaining about the heat (did I mention it was hot?). Time to do some thing about it. While perusing the Collingswood Farmers Market last week, we spotted some amazing looking watermelon. They were rather large Sugar Babies but still small enough that they wouldn’t take up the whole fridge. We grabbed one and cut into it as soon as we got home. It was sweet and juicy! We cut half for snacking, but I knew that with just the two of us we would never finish the second half before it went bad. I decided that the rest would be used for my very first attempt at making granita. I was a little concerned that it would be a pain, but it was so easy!

Granita is the fancy Italian way to say shaved ice or fruit slush. But, there is nothing fancy about making granita. I used 2 ingredients in this recipe, watermelon and lime juice. You could probably add some sugar or honey, but this watermelon was so sweet I didn’t need anything else. And, if you want to make this a granita margarita, I won’t mind. Just wait until after the granita is finished and add the alcohol to the serving bowl of granita as alcohol will keep your fruit juice from freezing all the way through.

 

Watermelon Granita,The Recipe
Author: 
Recipe type: Desert
Cuisine: Italian
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
 
Ingredients
  • ½ Watermelon, the sweeter the better
  • Juice from 1 lime, add more for more pucker power
Instructions
  1. Cut watermelon into chunks, removing the seeds if it's not seedless
  2. Juice the lime
  3. Add the watermelon and lime juice in batches into the blender and use the liquefy setting to make watermelon juice
  4. Pour the juice mixture into a glass 9x13 pan
  5. Place pan in the freezer
  6. Freeze for 1-2 hours
  7. Take a fork and scrape the frozen areas towards the center, breaking up the chunks
  8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you have a pan full of ruby red crystals
  9. Scoop into a bowl for your self (and your family if they insist) and the rest into a sealable, freezeable container to be left in the freezer.
  10. The granita will remain in crystal form unless you take it out and leave it on the kitchen counter and let it melt. Enjoy!

 

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Saving Money on Produce at the Farmers’ Markets

I hear all the time that Farmers’ Markets are so expensive. At one time, I thought the same thing. Over the years, I have changed my mind and now think that not only do I get a better value for my money at the fm, I actually save money!

Here are a few tips to help you save money at the Farmers’ Market:

Avoid the non-produce booths- I love the artisanal booths at the markets. The bread, cheeses, bath products, gourmet salts, and baked goods booths have amazing products! However, if you are on a tight budget then you will want to window shop only. These booths are usually run by the artist/baker/creator and when you have a little extra pocket money I highly suggest you use it to support these independent local artists. The products sold at these booths are high quality and rightfully deserve high quality prices.

Take a lap- Look around at all the different booths offering the produce you are interested in before making a purchase. In general the prices will be comparable, but sometimes a farm is producing more of an item than expected and the price will be a bit lower because of it. Note prices and quality and comparison shop. If one stand has great prices on kale but expensive carrots, buy the kale there and find another stand with a better deal on carrots. By taking your time and checking the prices and quality first you avoid buyer’s remorse.

Buy items that are in season and grow in your area- Currently blueberries, peaches, kale, chard and summer squash are in season in my area. Because those items are so abundant with all the farms at the market, the prices are lower. Since I live in New Jersey, there are not many farms producing pineapples around here. Even so, there is a booth at my local market that always has a few pineapples for sale but they are expensive. If I compare prices on blueberries at the fm to the grocery store, the fm’s prices are cheaper, however the grocery store has better prices on the pineapple and a better selection. Buying “in season” saves you money but it also means fresher, healthier produce. Produce that is shipped to grocery stores is often harvested earlier so it can withstand the long distance shipping experience. Local produce is likely have retained it’s nutrients because it’s picked/harvested closer to being ripe. This means you are getting more nutrients for your dollar. And the nutrients you get from in season produce often correspond to your bodies needs during that season. For example, winter crops include citrus fruits which are loaded with Vitamin C, something that helps boost your immune system which needs to be at it’s best to combat all the colds going around during that time of year.

Buy only what you are capable of consuming or storing- When the booths are brimming with crisp and colorful produce, it’s easy to get carried away. I’ve been guilty of overbuying and subsequently heart broken when some produce went bad because I didn’t get to it. In my experience, the produce I buy at farmers’ markets generally lasts longer than supermarket produce. How much longer depends on where you live, when I lived in Florida it was maybe an extra day or two, in New Jersey I usually can get an extra week. That being said, I try to only buy what I need for the week. If you are planning on canning or freezing then you should still keep in mind how much you are capable of canning/freezing and your storage capacity before purchasing. Throwing produce away is like taking money and putting it down the garbage disposal.

Along the same lines, keep in mind how soon you plan on preparing each item and how fresh that item looks. For example, if you plan on preparing broccoli the day you are buying it, you may feel satisfied with a cheaper bunch of broccoli that may be a few days old and spending that savings on a basket of peaches that are freshly picked that you will be consuming all week

Make a meal plan and create a list to avoid impulse buys-  Each week I create a meal plan for the week. I start by determining what is in season. Epicurious has a great resource for this here. Many farmers’ market’s websites also list this information. After building my meal plan I create a shopping list that I take with me to the market. Sticking to the list helps me save money and reduces waste. I don’t use this as an excuse to not go out of my comfort zone though. If I see an item that I have not tried or have been wanting to get my hands on, I see if I can swap it with another ingredient. If not, I will check with the person running the stand to see if the item is expected to be back next week. If so, I will build it into the plan next week. If not, I will usually splurge on it. I try to give myself wiggle room but by constraining myself to the list 90% of the time I usually stay on budget!

Go closer to market closing- This tip is risky! Most farmers don’t want to return from the farmers’ markets with a lot of produce unsold. So, sometimes you can find great deals at the end of the day. There are two risks to this strategy. First, the produce you are looking for is gone. Corn season is big here in New Jersey and at a local market, a local farmer pulls up a truck of corn on Saturday morning and there is a line at that truck all day. When it’s gone it’s gone. Second, the items that are left are not the “pick of the litter”. But, you may get a smoking deal on produce that is still fresher than you may find at the grocery store.

 

What tips do you have to save money at the Farmers’ Market?

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Farm Market Report: Stockton Farm Market, Honey Brook Farms & Blue Moon Acres

We got a kind of late start to our day, but headed north anyway to Stockton, which is about 20 minutes north of Trenton on Route 29. I love the drive along the river, through Washington’s Crossing, past Belle Bump and through Lambertville. On our last wander through this part of the state, we’d stopped at a lovely little grocery and picked up some nice grapes, olives and portabello mushrooms.

So when I found an article in New Jersey Monthly listing a bunch of NJ Farmer’s Markets included one in Stockton, we decided that we had to check it out.

When we arrived at the Stockton Farm Market, parking was somewhat difficult to find, but it wasn’t too bad. Walking in, we were immediately taken with the table of fresh, interesting vegetables (including garlic scapes and a few interesting greens, and fresh raw milk!). We didn’t buy anything right away, because we’d already done our market shopping for the week and wanted to see what inspiration might strike.

Unfortunately, that proved to be the only real fresh food stand. Everything else was baked goods, or cheeses, or artisan foods like balsamic jellies and other interesting carbs. It all looked mighty tasty, but way outside of our current carbohydrate tolerance.

Wandering through the building, we did see one or two other stands with a small amount of produce, but nothing particularly robust. Mostly it was artisan stuff, and mostly kinda pretentious. $10 for a bunch of fresh lavender? $7.99 a pound for garlic scapes (that were picked too late, being mostly woody and tough)?

Ultimately, we were in and out of the market in about twenty minutes, as the level of pretentiousness really started to grate on both of us. At one point, Jenn stood in front of a cheese table with no one else around her, and the proprietor stood there and ignored her for a full three minutes. I’m not sure what this marketing approach is supposed to prove, but all it did was chase us and our dollars out the door.

Since we were in the Mercer County area, we decided to head over to Honey Brook Organic Farms, one of the oldest and most successful CSA farms in the area. Their outlet in Pennington includes the pick-your-own option, where CSA members can come out with their family and go pull their produce as part of their CSA membership. There’s also a lot of veggies that have already been picked that members can just collect as part of their weekly allotment. They seemed very busy for being so isolated, and the vibe was cool. We weren’t members (and aren’t really thinking of joining this late in the season), so there wasn’t much for us there, but we were glad we visited anyway.

On the way out to Honey Brook, we passed by signs for Blue Moon Acres, another farm with a nice little shop. Seeing as we still needed rosemary and few other things, we decided to pop in for a quick visit. As we pulled in the driveway, it looked like they were setting up for a wedding or other banquet — as the signs all around eventually told us, they were hosting a Farm-to-Table meal featuring Chef Scott Anderson of Elements restaurant in Princeton. If we’d done a little better planning, we definitely would have hung in for the event. They have others coming up, including a Farm-to-Grill event that I think we’re definitely going to have to check out!

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Item Spotlight: Blueberries

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So, confession time. Until recently, I have never been a blueberry fan. *GASP* I didn’t dislike them, I  just didn’t seek them out. I have a few reasons for my ho-hum reaction to the little blue fruit. First of all,  I really never even had a real blueberry, at least one that was not in a muffin until I met my husband (who loves them) eight years ago. Second, I lived in Southern California for most of my life, there were not a lot of fresh blueberries growing in that area. Blueberries were always bought at the grocery store and seemed waxy and lacking real flavor. Then, we moved to New Jersey and everything changed.

“It’s blueberry day,” Keith said. Is that a government sanctioned event? Who declares it “Blueberry Day” in the state of Jersey? So, off we went to the Trenton Farmers’ Market to pay homage to fruit. We picked up 4 flats of blueberries, that I had to admit looked plump and juicy and cost us less than 2 from the grocery store. Then as we were driving around looking for farm stands, we happened on Wells’ Blueberry Farm, a pick your own farm.  There were blueberry bushes everywhere! It was a lot of fun and in the end we brought home over 5 pounds of blueberries! After getting them home and washing and drying them, I tried a few. WOW, the flavor was unbelievable! A perfect example of how eating locally and seasonally can change the way you see food.

Interested in picking your own blueberries? Go here.

Where are they grown: Blueberries are native to North America. In the U.S., Maine and Michigan seem to be the highest producing blueberry states. There is also considerable commercial acreage in New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Oregon and Washington also produce a lot of blueberries.

When are they grown:  The season starts in Mid-April for the southern states and moves later as you go north. The season ends in late September.

How to store: Freshly picked blueberries can last up to two weeks in the fridge. Store unwashed in a covered container. Water will cause mold quickly on stored blueberries, so you wash as you are ready to eat. They can also be frozen for up to a year. To freeze, wash and dry thoroughly, spread blueberries out on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Once they are frozen, transfer to a freezer appropriate container (sealed freezer bag or airtight freezer safe jar).

How to prepare:

  • Pop those puppies straight into your mouth!
  • Add to yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta, or creme fraiche
  • Make jam/ jelly/ preserves
  • Make a blueberry balsamic reduction for meat
  • Pancakes
  • Muffins
  • Dehydrate and add to trail mix
  • Dip in chocolate or yogurt and freeze for a sweet snack in the hot summer months
  • Make a blueberry simple syrup and add to coctails and lemonade
  • Make wine? My grandma used to make a super strong blackberry wine, I bet blueberry wine would be dangerously good!

What do you do with blueberries?

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Item Spotlight: Courgette Flowers

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If you’ve never had Courgette Flowers (aka Zucchini Blossoms) before but you’ve seen them at a farmers’ market, you probably had the same reaction I did. Wow, those are pretty, I wonder what they are, what they taste like and what you do with them! This curiosity usually leads me to purchase and experiment. So a few weeks ago, when I saw them at the Trenton Farmers’ Market that’s exactly what I did. Pineland Farms had a small bowl of them at their corner stand and I couldn’t resist the bright yellow and orange flower. So we grabbed 8 blossoms, a small container of fresh ricotta from a roadside farm stand, some scapes and mushrooms from the Collingswood Farmers’ Market and got to cooking! The recipe is here. We really enjoyed them stuffed. We tried them raw, just to see what they taste like. Bleh, didn’t taste like much, but not in a good way like iceberg lettuce. Definitely something you are gonna want to cook before eating.

What are they: They are the flowers of the zucchini bush. There are both male and female flowers. The female flower is generally attached to the baby zucchini, while the males just have the stem attached. I’ve only ever seen and cooked with the male flowers but have been told that stuffing the female flowers and cooking them still attached to the baby zucchini is really good as well!

When are they “In Season”: Basically anytime the zucchini is in season, the flowers are too. Generally, May to August is the peak season. We have been told by several local farmers that they don’t bring many to the farmers’ markets because people don’t know what to do with them. So, if you don’t see any available for sale at the market, ask at any booth that carries zucchini. They will probably be happy to bring a few bunches with them next week.

How to prepare them: 

  1. Bread and fry the flowers
  2. Stuff the flowers with cheeses and then fry or bake them
  3. Remove them from their stems and chop them into most any Italian dish

How to store them:  They really don’t store well. We’ve had the best success if we prepare them the day we purchase them. If you do need to store them, they should be refrigerated in a sealed container.

Price:  We’ve purchased them for 4-5 for a dollar. Because they don’t store well, we’ve scooped up the farms remaining flowers at the end of the day for an even lower price. I usually use 4 blossoms per person.