Whole Life Challenge – My Review

My women’s running club regularly participates in the 8-week fitness and nutrition game called the Whole Life Challenge (WLC), and one day last December I decided to join the next round which started January 17. I was fully aware of the  golden rules: no sugar no bread for 8 weeks (The Paleo diet in disguise essentially). I am already a clean eater, and daily exercise is no problem for me. So the real challenge would be to confront my sugar addiction. I signed up. My husband, two sons, family and close friends were fully forewarned of the potential mood swings they would have to endure WITH me. Yes – I made sure I had a decent support system to remind myself of my challenge and to help me succeed. On the first day of the challenge I went to a friend’s surprise birthday party. (Probably the first birthday I’ve left without eating cake). I was prepared however; I had a slightly cold banana waiting for me I the car. Leaving it in the car was a mistake but a good one because I ultimately learned that the colder temperature of the banana provides a sweeter return. (Hint: banana ice cream).

So here we go. Eight weeks of no sugar and no bread and day 1 was great. I felt like a champion. End of week one and my family was begging for me to give it up. Turns out I’m not nice when I’m not on simple carbs. Moving forward another week and into half marathon training, I found it hard to subsist on sweet potatoes, all the extra meat I felt forced to eat, and beans. (Off the challenge I would eat meat a few times a week at a maximum). My skin took a beating presumably from all the extra almonds I was consuming. (Almond butter brownies being the biggest pot of gold). I didn’t feel great and about 3 weeks in, near my birthday (which was my predetermined drop out date), I was at an all time low. I made a chocolate mousse from avocado and seeing the green bits invade my chocolate was atrocious. I got into my first ever fender bender. My mood was constantly depressed. I was not myself at all.  I had no energy on the treadmill. I was ready to quit. I proudly quit on my birthday – 4 weeks into the challenge. I scheduled my annual physical and was beyond shocked to learn that my Trigs and HDL were at an all time low. My Trigs were 39!! A low fat diet is around 50. Could it be too low, I wondered? I slowly started to add back bread, enjoy life better, and deal with the sub-5 nutrition score. (Every day the challenge awards you up to 13 points). Adding the bread meant losing the points – I could deal with that! Dramatically my life changed. My athletic performance improved, as did my mood. My family liked me again. I liked myself again, too.
New PR! 1:54
New PR! 1:54

The challenge ended the weekend of my NYC half marathon. I had already checked out of the eating game, and I missed the post-challenge team brunch. So there really wasn’t much ‘closure’ so to speak. But on my end of things, I was so ready to treat myself! I had a great race, set a new half marathon PR, and was jetting off to Paris the night of my race. Mile 12 was when it hit me that I was going to Paris and would be eating croissants and drinking cappuccinos in cafes all day!  It would be the perfect celebration of the end of the Whole Life Challenge.

The Daily
The Daily

It was a whirlwind week and every day in Paris I made it a priority to eat bread, croissants or waffles. I was in gluten heaven. I loved not having to worry about counting anything! I ate so much bread my brothers and sister would just pass the basket to me on the table as soon as it arrived. Did I binge? Probably. But I earned those carbs. I know everyone is wondering if I ever kicked the sugar habit. And I did! No longer feeling vulnerable in front of those bakery chocolate chip cookies. I’m in better control of my sweet cravings, have created a handful of healthier alternatives. I’m excited for what’s next!

Cacao Hemp Smoothie Bowl
Cacao Hemp Smoothie Bowl

A dozen or so people would ask, “why are you doing this challenge? What do you have to gain from it? Why are you only doing the basic level? Why are you trying to lose weight? Did you win?” I participated in this challenge for several reasons. As a personal trainer, I come across many clients interested in many diets. I am not a fan of diets and my experience above is exactly why. A diet implies an end date with are rules and restrictions. There will be binging. There will be falling off the bandwagon. I didn’t lose any weight, but I did shave off some inches. In the game I ended up at 21st place (125 started the challenge, 46 finished) – not bad.  My blood test proved me that excluding sugar and bread might not be what my body as an endurance athlete needs. I found I was motivated by the possibility of earning a perfect score every day which helped me stay away from noncompliant foods. But it also allowed me to explore other means to satisfy my sweet tooth. Dates, banana ice cream and almond butter brownies were my saviors. I even won a recipe challenge! However, this experience was not enough for me to change habits – but serves a purpose for those looking to try new things. (Reminding myself I already follow the 80/20 clean eating rule, so I didn’t have many bad habits to break).

In order to change your nutrition habits to eat better so that you can perform better in life, the change agent has to be intrinsic. It has to be motivated by something greater than our own ego. I am glad I did the challenge, and I am glad I can share this experience with my clients. The most important takeaway for me is that I know where my limits are and what nutrition my body needs to perform at its optimum level. That was the best lesson for me to learn.
*To learn more about this health and fitness game, or to join the next round, head to wholelifechallenge.com
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Recipe: Clean(ish) chocolate chip cookie bars

I am a complete sucker for chocolate chip cookies. It is my weakness; my downfall. I was so happy to come across this guilt-free recipe from ToneItUp.com and made a few changes according to what I had in my pantry.  Lessons learned: blend well – you don’t want chunks of chickpeas visible in the cookie. Perhaps blend the chickpeas well first, then slowly add in the rest of the ingredients. The coconut sugar is something I use in baking a lot – it tends to darken whatever I bake, so keep that in mind. Enjoy!

Blend all ingredients (except chocolate chips) well – I had to use a bit of oil.

No one will ever guess the secret ingredient!
No one will ever guess the secret ingredient!

3/4 cup Creamy Unsalted Peanut Butter – Almond Butter is best but I didn’t have any on hand.

  • 1/2 cup Organic Coconut Sugar
  • 1 can (15oz) Garbanzo Beans, Canned, Rinsed
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
  • 1/2 tsp, Baking Powder, Aluminum Free
  • 2 tsp (5 mL), Vanilla Extract

Mix in via spoon:

  • 1.5 cup Chocolate Chips

Pour batter into greased 9×9 pan. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1
Servings Per Container 16

Amount Per Serving
Calories 128 Calories from Fat 54
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 6g 9%
Saturated Fat 1g 5%
Trans Fat g
Cholesterol mg 0%
Sodium 178mg 7%
Total Carbohydrate 17g 6%
Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Sugars 8g
Protein 4g 8%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

 

(Recipe adapted from ToneItUp.com)

 

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Perfect summer pina colada

I am always dreaming of the ocean, and what better way to whisk you away than a pina colada! SUPER fresh and easy. Coconut milk has medium chain fatty acids, which helps to support metabolism. Unfortunately the brand I picked up has carageenan in it, so I will need to find an alternative for next time.

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blend together:
1 cup of unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup of frozen pineapple
1 frozen or fresh banana
quarter to half cup of coconut water

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1
Servings Per Container 2

Amount Per Serving
Calories 131 Calories from Fat 27
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 3g 5%
Saturated Fat 2g 10%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 9mg 0%
Total Carbohydrate 30g 10%
Dietary Fiber 5g 20%
Sugars 16g
Protein 1g 2%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

enjoy!

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Be Fit for Ramadan

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By Ayesha Akhtar, MPH, CPT

O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous. (Surah Al-Baqarah: Verse183)

With Ramadan approaching in just a few short weeks, many of you, like myself, are wondering how to maintain a level of fitness throughout the month of Ramadan, so as not to lose endurance and muscle tone (neither are completely true). Fear not! There are several habits you can adopt throughout your day, and can maybe even enhance the spiritual aspect of fasting by giving you a little extra energy here and there. I’ve share below some of my own lessons learned. Feel free to share your own!

For my readers who are not familiar with the logistics of Ramadan, allow me to share. Fasting for 30 days during the month of Ramadan (one month on the lunar calendar) is one of the five main pillars of Islam. This year, Ramadan begins at the end of June. Physically and mentally able Muslims (there are several exemptions) will fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from food, water, smoking, and sex during those times. At sunset, it is tradition to break fast with a date, which is essentially a superfood, water and the company of others. It is such a beautiful time of togetherness and camaraderie. Many faiths participate in fasting on some level. The first few days are tough, then your body gets into a groove, the last 10 days are hard, knowing the end is near. It is a time for physical cleansing, and spiritual resetting. Many will attend the Mosque for prayers more often than, others prefer to stay at home. We end the month of Ramadan with Eid ul Fitr, a celebration lasting three days, with gift giving galore!  Continue reading Be Fit for Ramadan

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Ultimate Veggie Burger 

I really liked this recipe, and the chickpeas make a nice base. It’s also a nice change from black beans.

It makes a lot… halve the recipe for 4 good sized servings.

Recipe from 101 Cookbooks, adapted by Love and Olive Oil

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups sprouted garbanzo beans (chickpeas) OR canned garbanzos, drained and rinsed
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 onion, chopped
Grated zest of one large lemon (or omit, if you’re not a fan)
1 cup micro sprouts, chopped (try broccoli)
1 cup toasted (whole-grain) bread crumbs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Directions:

If you are using sprouted garbanzos, steam them until just tender, about 10 minutes.

Most of you will be using canned beans, so jump right in and combine the garbanzos, eggs, and salt in a food processor. Puree until the mixture is the consistency of a very thick, slightly chunky hummus. Pour into a mixing bowl and stir in the cilantro, onion, zest, and sprouts.

Add the breadcrumbs, stir, and let sit for a couple of minutes so the crumbs can absorb some of the moisture. The mixture should be moist enough to easily form and hold a patty shape. Add more bread crumbs a bit at a time to firm up the dough if need be. Conversely, a bit of water or more egg can be used to moisten the batter. Form mixture into 12 patties.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium low, add 4 patties, cover, and cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until the bottoms begin to brown. Turn up the heat if there is no browning after 10 minutes. Flip the patties and cook the second side for 7 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the skillet and cool on a wire rack while you cook the remaining patties. Serve on buns topped with avocado, tomato, onion, and more sprouts, if desired. Alternatively, you can make extra-thick patties (1 1/2 inches), and slice them in half after cooking. Put the filling inside the patty, and you have a self-bunning-burger.

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4 Ingredient Cookies

4 Ingredient Cookies

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 1.5 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips
  • 4 tbsp peanut butter.
  • Mix well with hand and
  • Bake for 8-10 min at 350 degrees.
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1
Servings Per Container 16

Amount Per Serving
Calories 84 Calories from Fat 27
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 3g 5%
Saturated Fat g 0%
Trans Fat g
Cholesterol mg 0%
Sodium 19mg 1%
Total Carbohydrate 12g 4%
Dietary Fiber g 0%
Sugars 4g
Protein 2g 4%

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
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Lean, clean & green

There are endless possibilities for a lean, clean and green meal, here are some ideas to get you started with what you already have in your kitchen:

Lean protein with greens. Lean chicken breast or fish pan-seared or baked. The meat will be 1/3 of your plate. To prepare the chicken or fish, use any marinade that is light and just a few ingredients. I like lime juice, olive oil, salt and crushed red pepper. Prepare any green to represent 2/3 of your plate. My favorite is roasted brussel sprouts. Slice and toss them in a bowl with olive oil, paprika, red pepper, salt and rosemary. Towards the end of roasting, I add sliced almonds.

Quinoa bowl. Cook 1 cup of quinoa as directed (serves 2) and portion between bowls. I love this because it’s quick, easy, and can be eaten cold or warmed up. The ingredients you add are endless. The best part is the presentation of the bowl (you can have a theme!) Here are some that I like:

  • roasted chick peas (seasoned with red pepper & paprika — do you spot a theme yet?)
  • fresh or roasted fennel
  • cucumbers
  • fresh peppers
  • carrots
  • roasted corn
  • avocado
  • tofu
  • chicken breast
  • fresh spinach / kale
  • tomatoes
Cauliflower mac & cheese
Cauliflower mac & cheese

Cauliflower Mac & Cheese

  1. Boil the whole cauliflower in stock for 5-7 minutes, remove it from water and break down into little florets.
  2. Boil 1 cup of pasta in the same water. (or could use quinoa). When you finish the pasta you can toss all but 1 cup of water.
  3. Place florets & pasta in a lightly oiled baking dish.
  4. Next saute onions, garlic in a bit of butter/oil. Add to it 2 cups of milk of your choice and about 3 tbsp of flour (some people use nutritional yeast). I added about 2-3 tbsp of dijon mustard, some salt & pepper. Add about 1 cup of grated cheese, whatever kind your heart desires.
  5. Pour this into the baking dish, add the remaining cup of water, and sprinkle bread crumbs all over the top and bake at 400 for 10-12 minutes, or until you get that nice brown crust.
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A Turkish Vegan Affair

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The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey Photo: A. Akhtar

I visited Istanbul a few years ago and fell more in love with the culture. I loved Turkish food (and coffee) even more after visiting cafes, spice markets, Doner kebab stands, and restaurants where your food is cooked in a clay pot and cracked for you at tableside.

When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don't ask any questions. Just eat.
When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don’t ask any questions. Just eat. Photo: O. Akhtar

Continue reading A Turkish Vegan Affair

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Recipe: Banana date almond milk smoothie

During Ramadan, I consume a lot of dates. I enjoy them whole, but one day it occurred to me to try and blend them in a smoothie. What followed was probably the best tasting smoothie I had made to date (no pun intended).

Ingredients:

4 dates

1 banana (fresh or frozen)

4 oz almond milk

1 tbsp chia seeds.

Add ice if you like.

And a scoop of protein powder! I use a brown rice based powder by Perfect Fit Protein. 

Banana date almond milk smoothie
Banana date almond milk smoothie

 

 

 

 

 

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Recipe: Overnight Oats

The recipes for overnight oats are a dime a dozen, make them your own way! Really, don’t get hung up on how to make them “perfect”. I love to make them the night before I know I will have a busy morning, race day, or during Ramadan, for my pre-dawn meal (Suhoor).

The oats truly need at least 3 hours in the fridge, but many just keep them overnight. They are very easy to make, and all you need to remember is a 1:1 ratio of oats to liquid. Most will add milk of your choice, I’ve seen some people add juice. I would not… Play with the thickness of oats you desire, more or less liquid, more or less yogurt.

To the milk and oat mixture, some people will add (greek) yogurt for added smoothness and protein. I go back and forth on how I feel about the yogurt. It’s great to get that extra bit of protein for sure. To this you can add several nuts, seeds, spices, and dried fruit. Be sure to give it a good stir before you set it for the night, and in the morning you can add fresh fruit. I like to top off with fresh bananas.

Overnight oats
Overnight oats

Some additions to add before refrigeration:
Chia seeds
Cacao nibs
Nuts
Hemp seeds
Agave
Cinnamon
Honey
PB2
Cocoa powder
Protein powder

Good morning! Now, stir it up and you can add:
Peanut butter
Fresh fruit
Espresso shots
Jam
Anything else you want!

 

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