Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 39

Restaurant La Boheme

Eating Right, Eating Out

Aside from my general preference for loafing instead of moving, my biggest challenge to living healthy is what happens when I eat away from my own kitchen.  I am pretty good about having healthy things around and preparing my go-to nutritious meals when I am at home and following my normal routine.  Things start to get out of hand, however, when I go out to eat or go on vacation and start eating what's available at family and friends' houses.  Partly, I am easily caught up in the social aspect of eating and tend to eat very quickly when eating in a large group.  This is true when I'm comfortably eating with family but also when I am at a party with lots of people I don't know (in that case, I am eating to have something to do when I'm not sure who to talk to).  A bigger problem, though, is that when I'm not at home I find it harder to curb my impulse to eat when I'm not really hungry.  Especially on vacation there are so many tempting options that I don't want to wait until I'm hungry to eat or else I'll have to pass on some of the yummy foods.  So disappointing!

Normally I am just vaguely aware of the problem I have eating out and try to restrict the number of days I eat away from home.  It's generally a good strategy, but there are some times when it's just not possible and I would really benefit from having some additional techniques to avoid undoing all my hard work.  Now that the holiday season is upon me, it is particularly hard to avoid big social meals with lots of appealing food.  Plus, the usual holiday food fest will be multiplied by a season of job interviews for my spouse which will likely have us away from home several times during the new year.  So my recent goal has been to identify strategies to keep my eating to reasonable quantities while eating away from home.

Here's what I've come up with so far:

  1. Pay attention to hunger cues and try not to eat to the point of being uncomfortably full.  I've actually succeeded pretty well on this one, even on Thanksgiving day, so that's a small victory!
  2. Don't eat unless I am hungry.  This one has not been as much of a success--I think it is the root of my eating out/eating away problems so I want to work on it seriously over the next couple of months.  Particularly as the evening progresses, I just want to eat for pleasure.  Earlier in the day I find this less tempting, perhaps because there is usually stuff going on.
  3. Don't wait until I am starving to eat.  Surprisingly, this also happens sometimes when I am eating with family or friends.  Since there is a group we are not always following my own hunger cues (or an event leads us all to ignore our hunger), so when we actually do eat it is harder to make healthy decisions.   
  4. Enjoy all the desirable foods, but don't overdo it on any one thing.  Some people probably would want to change what they eat when they eat away from home, but I want to be able to enjoy all of the yummy options, especially since I know I will resume a fairly healthy and complete diet when I get back home.  So, I try to incorporate healthy elements but the main thing is not to eat a ton of something really fattening and high in calories just because it is suddenly on the menu.  This relates to strategies 1 and 2.  
  5. When eating at a restaurant, hold back on bread and appetizers.  I am pretty good about eating approximately half of a restaurant entree and boxing up the rest for leftovers, but sometimes this still results in my eating a huge meal if I have a lot of bread or soup or appetizers before the meal.  I have recruited DH to help remind me that I don't want to overdo it on the starters just because they are there, and letting him know about this plan should also help me keep it in mind too. 
  6. Don't give up on eating a balanced diet entirely just because I'm away from home.  This is especially relevant when I will be away from home for a few days.  Whenever I get into a vacation mindset, I start to just ignore nutrition and healthy food altogether.  I would probably stay on track a lot more if I continued to choose healthy breakfast and lunch options even though my dinners and desserts will probably a bit less than ideal.  Just because we will be going out for dinner most nights doesn't mean I also have to eat cheese danish or donuts for breakfast.  I plan to incorporate this mindset for my next long weekend away from home.
What about you?  How do you stay on track with healthy eating when there are so many opportunities to overeat and indulge in fattening treats, especially around the holidays?  Do you have any tricks for eating healthy while eating away from home, or do you find that just never works and you really need to limit the frequency of eating out to stay in control?  Can any of the same strategies be applied to cravings and the temptation to overindulge during pregnancy?  

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Walking.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 40

walk street sign

Walk It Off

With the holidays here, I am finding myself getting hopelessly behind on my challenges!  I suppose it's just one of those life things I'll have to get over--I'm sure there will be more and more distractions and interruptions when kids are in the picture anyway.  But sometime a few weeks ago my weekly challenge was to add more walking to my daily routine and I've really made headway with that goal.

I live a 15-20 minute walk from my academic building which I go to approximately 2 days a week, but I normally get dropped off by my husband to save time.  Since adding this challenge to my routine, I have been able to walk to school at least once a week and sometime even more than once (it's usually later when I leave and I take the bus home).  I have noticed several time in recent months that walking any significant distance has caused me to have hip pain, but stretching my hips before I leave the house and walking for briefer periods seems to have helped.  Hopefully I am also building up my muscles for future longer walks. 

In addition, I've found lots of other opportunities to walk more, like walking to meetings in other buildings, shopping, walking the family dog while visiting for Thanksgiving, etc.  So far I have had no trouble adding an extra 30-60 minutes of walking to my weekly routine.  In the coming months, I will try to keep this up despite the increasingly wintry weather and plan to increase my walking intensity as I approach the TTC date.

Here's hoping I can keep up my motivation for this habit, because I think it's a good one.  I already added a pedometer to my Christmas list to give me a little mid-winter boost in enthusiasm.

How about you?  What's your favorite weight-bearing exercise to do outdoors?  Is walking your thing or do you find it boring?  How do you add more steps to your daily activity for good health?

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Strength Training.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 41

Oliver After Weight Training

Strength Training

Last week it dawned on me that maybe my plan of eating less and exercising the same amount as I have been for the past year or so wasn't going to result in the kind of change in fitness that I am hoping to achieve.  I do want to weigh less, ideally, but I really want to be physically ready for the challenges of pregnancy.  Even during the times when I lost a substantial amount of weight, I never really felt that I had increased in strength, flexibility, or endurance.  Usually, I felt weaker but also thinner and lighter.  As I've mentioned before, that won't do for this year's goals.  

But as obvious as it sounds that I need to add strength and flexibility training to my routine, I was really reluctant to do so.  I don't want to reduce the amount of cardio I've been doing substantially--partly because that might actually cause me to gain weight instead of maintaining the status quo and partly because it's the kind of exercise I find most tolerable (at least I can watch my shows).  And there are only so many hours in the day.  So, I have started to add strength and flexibility training in small, tolerable ways with minimal equipment.  My workout gear consists of (1) tennis shoes, (2) three and five pound weights (I like the kind with the non-slip coating that don't leave your hands smelling like metal), (3) a sturdy wall, (4) a sturdy chair, and (5) an inexpensive thigh workout device.  I think someone can make a perfectly good strength and flexibility routine out of these few items, but there are a couple of additional things on my wish list, such as a plush yoga mat, an exercise/stability ball, wrist weights for walking, and maybe some resistance bands.  As a person with very minimal upper body and core strength, here's what I have been trying so far:

  1. Twenty wall pushups and a few squats any time I go into the restroom at work and there is no one else in the room.  The handicap stall has a fairly sturdy wall and enough room to do these moves while locked into the stall, so in case someone comes in they won't see my mini-workout.  If you have your own office instead of a cubicle or are at home most of the day, this would be even more doable.
  2. A few minutes of stretching after my cardio workout.  This is the time when my muscles are most warmed up and I am at my most flexible.  I can even bend over and touch the floor sometimes if I stretch enough.  Eventually, I plan to build this up to a 15 or 20 minute yoga or Pilates video a couple times a week.
  3. Brief but challenging core training.  My core strength is pretty weak, so I will feel the burn the next day if I do a few arms-up full situps and about 10 Pilates criss-cross exercises.  This is enough usually to wear me out, but if I have any strength left I will do some crunches or leg lifts.  Hopefully, my stamina will improve over time.  I am working up to the 12 minute seated core workout video that's available for free on SparkPeople.
  4. Extra weight lifting and gravity-based leg workouts when I have time.  I will usually do 10 or 20 dumbbell curls, another 20 two-arm tricep extensions (where you hold the weight behind your head and lift up), and then just spend some time doing leg lifts and balancing my weight.  Unlike my cardio workout, I don't have a particular routine.  I just pull something from memory from the various strength training workouts I have done that targets an area I want to strengthen, and then I keep doing it until I feel the muscle getting tired.  Eventually, I would like to work up to a more specific, measurable plan.  

What about you?  Do you have a favorite strength or flexibility training routine that works for you?  Any suggestions on where to find a strength training plan that starts with the lowest level of ability and keeps you feeling motivated and continuing to see improvements?  How do you know when to increase the weight or try something different?  What has been the greatest fitness milestone you've passed?  I'd love to hear from you, so please share your thoughts below.

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Tracking My Eating.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 42

Week 5


Track My Eating

Last week, following my visit to the nutritionist, I took stock of my goals for the year leading up to TTC and decided it was time to get serious about tracking what I eat.  As I've mentioned before, I have been a member of SparkPeople for a couple of years now and will sporadically track my food when I consider my weight loss goals, but I typically lose enthusiasm for it when I am not seeing the kind of progress I want.  In the past, I have always stuck to dieting strategies that involve extreme changes in my eating behavior, show quick results, and fall apart the instant I return to "life as usual".  

Well, these days I am determined to live a healthier lifestyle, not just get back into a smaller clothing size.  I don't want to go back to the days of extreme, unsustainable dieting followed by immediate weight gain, but I worry that my body won't respond to more subtle changes in my diet and activity levels.  I am trying to keep my focus not only on how my behaviors impact how I look and feel, but on how my choices might one day soon affect my child's development in the womb and his or her attitudes and beliefs growing up.  That is a big responsibility and I take it seriously.  I don't just want to lose weight for my own gratification anymore.  In fact, as the nutritionist pointed out, maybe I shouldn't even be focusing on weight loss per se.  So this past week I decided it was time to focus less on the scale and more on what I am putting into my body.  

I'm sure everyone has their own method of accountability that works, but for me it's been the online tracking tools that really help.  I can enter down to the last detail everything that I ate or every ingredient I included in a recipe, and then I can reuse those entries over and over for things that I eat frequently.  Plus, I can get all kinds of reports, like the one pictured at the top of this post (Note: that is not a picture of my own progress report -- I actually eat about 1650 calories a day for my current weight, and that is the bottom of the suggested range).  For someone with a scientifically-oriented brain, these features are indispensable for maintaining motivation and enhancing my feeling of self-control.  

Admittedly, I am sometimes at a loss for what to enter when I eat too many things outside of my usual repertoire (I went to a reunion this weekend and tracking just went out the window for the day), but entering my food has helped me to be conscious of what I am eating and how much I am taking in.  It isn't so great when I reach the top of my calorie limit for the day and still feel hungry, of course, but it is very freeing when I realize I have eaten less than the limit and can indulge in a little something extra at the end of the day.  Plus, I think it motivates me to eat more fruits and vegetables just so I can see them being added to the list.  

So far, tracking consistently hasn't caused me to lose more weight (crossing my fingers that this will change in the future), but it has stopped me seeing those occasional weight gains of two or three pounds and makes me feel certain I am eating the right kinds of foods in the right amounts for good health.  I'm hoping to remain diligent in this practice throughout the rest of my countdown to TTC and continue into pregnancy.  

What about you?  How do you keep yourself accountable for what you eat and how much you eat?  Do you personally feel helped by calorie counting, or does it backfire for you?  Anyone else track what they eat carefully but still not seeing movement on the scale?  Any advice on how to stick with a healthy lifestyle even at the times when you aren't seeing much change or improvement?  

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Seeing a Nutritionist.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 43

Coqui the Chef Nutrition Workshop Building Healthy Habits

See a Nutritionist

Normally, I avoid seeing medical or health professionals unecessarily.  I believe preventative care is important, but the U.S. healthcare system really isn't set up for people to visit their doctors and other care providers just to check in.  Plus, as a graduate student I really don't like to do anything that increases my medical expenses.  However, a flyer in the office recently reminded me that my university provides several free services to employees and students to help them stay healthy or get healthier.  One of these services is an initial consultation and several follow-ups with a nutritionist.  Given my ongoing goal of getting ready for pregnancy over the course of this year, it seemed like a perfect opportunity.  So, this past week I added consult a nutritionist about preconception planning and weight loss to my list.  

In preparation for the visit, I had to track my food for several days.  Since I am a veteran user of SparkPeople, the only difficult parts about that were (1) being more self-conscious about my food choices knowing they would be scrutinized by a dietitian and (2) having to simplify my tracking to fit onto the form I was asked to use (since I usually make my food, I am often tracking a dozen ingredients per meal).  In the end, I brought both a filled-out form that was impossible to read and a super long printout of my food from the same days taken directly from SparkPeople.  The dietitian didn't seem to mind and actually looked more at my long, detailed printout.  

I really wasn't sure what to expect from my appointment, since I didn't have any choice over the dietitian and her philosophy--I was just visiting the person who works for my school health center.  The only time I've ever known someone to visit a nutritionist was if they had to lose a substantial amount of weight for medical reasons, which is pretty different than my situation.  Plus, a university is unlikely to employ someone to work with undergrads whose expertise is in chronic medical conditions.  So I shouldn't have been surprised when I came to the appointment explaining that I was frustrated with my current weight loss efforts because I am not losing pounds despite having recently reduced my caloric intake and tracking my food vigorously and her first question was "What would you say if I told you that you should stop trying to lose weight?"  

I don't think she particularly believes I am at an ideal weight, but she is a person who subscribes to a philosophy of being healthy at any size.  Throughout our conversation, she encouraged me to focus on healthy behaviors rather than fixating on the number on the scale.  She also pointed out that I may be making physical changes in preparation for weight loss right now (don't see any evidence of that, but who know maybe I'm stealthily gaining some muscle mass).  She also discussed some flaws with BMI as an indicator of health risk (click here for some alternative measures of ideal weight and here for an article about a new way of calculating BMI that may be more accurate for adults).  I have not yet found any research on the subject, but she suggested that even the "common knowledge" that BMI is directly linked to negative health outcomes may be flawed.  According to the nutritionist, studies which are able to include health-related behaviors directly in their analyses along with BMI typically find that body mass has not additional impact on health outcomes above and beyond healthy behaviors like exercise and eating right.  I don't claim to endorse this opinion, but it certainly gave me something to think about and I will want to research this more.

Although I have made a lot of improvements in my healthy lifestyle and the nutritionist was very positive about my health indicators like cholesterol levels, I still couldn't quite get on board with the idea that I should stop caring about my weight.   But I agreed with her that I am focusing too much on the scale and too little on the positive health changes I am making.  In the end, I didn't have a great answer to her question about my weight.  Honestly, if someone told me I don't need to lose another pound to be maximally healthy and ready for pregnancy, I just wouldn't believe them.  I'm sure I am at a weight that would make it possible for me to get pregnant and probably have an uncomplicated pregnancy, but I know I could have more energy and a fitter body to deal with the stress of growing a new life and then caring for a small child.  Perhaps getting on the scale every day and agonizing over the number isn't the right way to do that, though.  Based on my appointment, we agreed I would cut back to weighing in twice a week and pay attention to my hunger cues.  At my next meeting, we'll discuss making some changes to my eating habits that focus more on hunger levels than on how many calories I think I have "left" for the day.  It's a good start.  Hopefully the scale and my healthy improvements will match up soon, but if not I will try to focus on getting healthy with weight being a secondary component rather than my main indicator.  

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Planning with Pinterest.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 44


Planning with Pinterest!

The past couple of weeks have been extremely busy for me, so this past week I decided to tackle a goal that was more fun than challenging.  I started a secret Pinterest board to keep track of all of my baby-related findings.  In addition to my public Pinterest account, I wanted a page where I could keep track of my personal baby research, like links to pages of nurse midwives in my area, hospitals where I could give birth, or play groups in cities I might live in when I have little ones.  I decided to keep it private because (1) my level of obsession with this topic is a bit embarrassing given that I'm not even TTC yet, and (2) I once posted a few baby-related pins in a row on my public page and was instantly being interrogated by my social network.  As much as I enjoy sharing this weekly journey with you, I don't want my family and friends to be confused about my status. 

Secret or not, I love spending my free time researching these kinds of topics and imagining what the future might hold, but often I forget what I discovered as soon as I close all the tabs on my web browser and then I end up looking the same things up all over again (or, even worse, forgetting about a gem that I found).  But surely that is the purpose of a site like Pinterest?  Even though I keep lots of tabs open on my computer, I can never have every page I am interested in easily accessible until the time when I need it.  Invariably the moment I give up and close that recipe I had open for two weeks is the time I finally have a chance to try it.  And planning for a pregnancy that's at least 10 months in the future, I really need to be able to store up the information I find for a later date.  I have also created a Word document to track some information, like my thoughts and ideas, and a folder where I can store published research articles about topics like childbirth, since unfortunately those types of materials rarely have any pictures and as a result Pinterest won't even let me store them.  

Ultimately, this week's goal wasn't so much of a challenge as an opportunity to acknowledge that TTC is really approaching.  It's important to get my mind and body in a good place, but I also need to keep the end goal in mind and maintain my motivation to make positive changes in my life.  The day DH and I decided to start trying is now less than 300 days away!  Until then, I want to continue to enjoy this time of anticipation and preparation.  Different people have their own ways of savoring the moment, but for me one of the keys is getting to imagine and mull over every detail, even if it's just a private activity on my secret Pinterest board.   

What about you?  What's your favorite way to stay motivated to get healthy and prepared, or just to keep up your excitement for a pregnancy or baby that's still a long way away?  Do you keep a secret Pinterest board or is your baby mania out there for all to see?  

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Proper Posture. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 45

Etiquette lessons from Sofia: the proper sitting posture

Proper Posture

Again this week, I decided to begin working on something that's a bit more challenging for me than some of my early goals: posture.  Honestly, if I just make a little progress on this one it will be a big improvement, because I have been hunching for as long as I can remember.  Maybe it's because I'm taller than most women, or maybe it's a holdover from my awkward teenage posture, or possibly I'm just too lazy to stand up straight.  Certainly adopting a lifestyle that involves sitting at a computer most of the day hasn't helped.  Whatever the reason, I know it's probably bad for my neck and back in the long run and I especially want to improve my posture before I get pregnant.  I've read numerous times that posture during pregnancy is even more important than it usually is because your body is changing and working hard to support extra weight that's all concentrated in one spot.  Women are already understandably more prone to back pain during pregnancy, so I really don't want to make it even worse by slouching all the time.

Although the origin of my bad posture is somewhat unknown, the reason for its maintenance is fairly obvious--my core, back, and neck muscles are weak.  Plus, I am so used to having bad posture that I almost can't even tell if my posture is good or bad at any particular moment.  Thus, my first course of action was to buy an inexpensive posture corrector to remind me to sit and stand up straight.  The particular corrector I ordered is made of elastic material that stretches around your back and shoulders and wraps around under your chest to attach with velcro.  It could be worn by a man or woman, but I feel it is particularly designed to strap under a woman's bosom.  I opened it as soon as I saw that it had arrived and started wearing it.  As various reviewers had mentioned, the material and the velcro are not very comfortable, so I wore a t-shirt underneath and padded some of the spots that rubbed (under the armpits, probably because my arms aren't as slim as the models) with washcloths.  While it doesn't exactly force you into the correct posture, the elastic is strong and definitely pulls my shoulders back without me doing anything.  Because of the way the getup looks and the fact that I am wearing it over clothes, I have no intention of wearing it out of the house.  Instead, it is a way to practice a couple of hours at a time sitting with good posture and hopefully that will slowly train my muscles and also make me more conscious of what proper posture feels like.  Even after just a few days I do feel like it is a little more natural to rest with my shoulders back rather than hunched forward.  But I'm sure it will take a long time to break my bad habits for good.

In addition to my sessions with the corrector, I am beginning to try a few other strategies to make my posture improvement a speedier and less unpleasant process:

  1. Work on back and core strength.  There are numerous online articles and video explaining and demonstrating exercises that promote good posture.  In general, it is easier to support your head and keep your shoulders back if you have good upper back strength and to support the weight of your body if you have strong abdominals.  My typical exercise routine doesn't focus much on strength, and when it does I focus mostly on my arms and legs, so these are definite weak spots for me.  
  2. Stretch.  There are lots of good stretches that promote better posture and reduce back and neck fatigue/pain.  Stretches can even be done at a desk at work. 
  3. Adjust my sitting position.  If you're going to sit all day, it's better to sit properly in an ergonomic chair with legs straight down and preferably feet slightly elevated.  Or even better to use an exercise ball or a kneeling chair rather than a traditional desk chair.  Since I share my office space and take whatever chairs are available, for now I'll settle for getting up frequently, setting my chair to the proper height for my computer monitor, and trying to to cross my legs or lean to one side for a long time while I work.  
What about you?  Have you done anything to improve your posture recently and, if so, what was your strategy?  Do you have any experience with the effects of good/bad posture during pregnancy or have any words of wisdom to share?

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Having an Active Lifestyle. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 46

Color Run NYC 8-26-2012

Get Active, Have Fun

 Once I commit to a certain activity or behavior, I am pretty good at following through on it.  So taking the stairs more or drinking more water are doable as long as I am able to remember they are on my to-do list.  But something I don't really do well is add spontaneous healthy behaviors to my day.  Even if I have an opportunity, I won't spontaneously add extra walking or play outside with friends or go out dancing.  For me, health-related activities are a necessary chore that you have to plan for but that you wouldn't want to do for fun.  So my goal this week was to work on changing my perspective about being active and to move toward having a healthy lifestyle, rather than a set of specific healthy behaviors.    

Step one of this effort was to register for and participate in a Color Run.  These events are popping up all over the United States and are pitched as "The Happiest 5k on the Planet".  Participants register in advance to take part in a 5 kilometer walk/run and show up on race day with thousands of other people to travel on a single track.  People of all shapes, sizes, and ages come to take part (including many families with infants and small children).  Runners/walkers are released in small waves, and there are several stations set up along the track representing a single color.  At each station, participants are sprayed by enthusiastic volunteers with dyed corn starch that starts to cover their clothing and bodies in bursts of bright colors.  When you complete the race, you toss a final color packet that you received at the start of the race along with hundreds of other participants, creating a rainbow cloud (pictured above).  

I am usually the type of person who avoids such events when possible, but since I started counting down to trying to conceive I have been thinking about my goals a little differently.  Usually I pass because I don't like waking up early on the weekends, which is almost always mandatory for walks/runs, and also I worry that I will get too tired or sore by the end of the race and look foolish.  Now, though, I am thinking more long-term.  Why avoid something fun like the Color Run just in case I might get tired?  I should instead look at it as a challenge and a goal for self-improvement.  Plus, it could be fun and maybe I would even want to be one of those mommies out there in a future race pushing my baby in a stroller or one of the fit pregnant ladies strutting along with a prominent belly bump.  

The next step will be a bit more difficult, because there is no specific plan or list to follow.  I will just need to start saying yes more often to opportunities to get active. I don't want to make a rule to always say yes, because there are some things I don't like to do or that are beyond my current abilities.  But having a yes attitude will be a good start.  Also, keeping an eye open for opportunities I might otherwise miss is a good idea.  I see lots of information about free events in my community, but usually I skip right to the ones about food or theater/movies and don't even look at active ones.  Even though most of them might not be my thing (I loathe most organized sports, for example), I might find the occasional gem like the Color Run - within my ability level, active, fun.  

What about you?  Is routine exercise the only way you get active, or are you able to find ways to get moving that aren't part of your exercise schedule?  How do you have fun while staying or getting fit?  What are some calorie-burning activities that you actually enjoy?   

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Eating More Produce. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 47

Eat More Produce

By this point I've had over a month to ease into this countdown business, and despite spending a few days having to pee every 10 minutes and waking up sore one morning from climbing about 20 flights of stairs the day before, so far I haven't challenged myself to make any major changes in my day-to-day life.  This week, I want to rock the boat a little more and really put health at the forefront of my efforts.  I am challenging myself to eat at least 4 servings of produce a day.  At least half should come from veggies, ideally more.  

Some aspects of what we should eat and how much of it we should eat are controversial, but I won't be spending too much time today discussing that issue.  Almost everyone agrees that eating a variety of vegetables (especially) and fruits is good for you, and the fresher the produce is and the more different kinds you consume the better.  You can also add environmental and nutrient benefits by shopping for locally-grown produce in many parts of the United States (just search Buy Fresh Buy Local and your state's name online to find information about farmer's markets and other local food resources).  This message is being vigorously promoted by the USDA's My Plate program, which suggests you fill half of your plate at each meal with fruits and veggies.  And the same message is also supported by leading nutrition researchers (who are not necessarily without bias but probably are under less direct pressure from the agricultural lobby), such as those at the Harvard School of Public Health who recommend a similar diet breakdown.  

This week, I used the handy calculator from the My Plate website to determine what is the recommended number of servings for someone of my age, size, and activity level who wants to progress toward a healthy weight.  My personal recommendation is to consume 6 oz of grain, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy, and 5.5 oz of protein daily.  Based on the most current nutrition research, I think the recommendation for my dairy intake is too high (see the Harvard School of Public Health's discussion about dairy and calcium for more information), but I am convinced that I should ideally be eating at least 4.5 cups of vegetables and fruits on an average day.  

The calculator further breaks down the proportion I should devote to vegetables of different varieties over the course of a week:  1.5 cups leafy greens (note that one "cup" of greens is actually 2 measured cups due to their volume), 5.5 cups orange/red vegetables (like carrots and tomatoes), 1.5 cups beans and peas, 5 cups starchy vegetables (like potatoes and lima beans), and 4 cups of other vegetables (such as onions, mushrooms, and green beans).  Unfortunately there is not much evidence provided to support the suggested breakdown, and the Harvard School of Public Health food guide suggests that starchy vegetables like potatoes shouldn't really count toward your daily vegetable intake, but I do appreciate the help trying to think of the different kinds of veggies I should be eating so I don't just get stuck in a rut of eating only spinach or only green beans.  In fact, I have a very hard time thinking of anything that isn't green as a vegetable, so the breakdown is pretty nice.  My only change would be to lower the allotment for starchy vegetables and redistribute the remaining portions to other categories (particularly leafy greens).  

So, this all seems very well and good, but unfortunately I like doing all the research a lot more than I enjoy actually trying to cram more produce into my day.  I know fruits and vegetables are supposed to be a large part of my diet, but usually when I start adding more than I would normally eat I just end up packing in more calories rather than replacing something with them.  For instance, I'll still have the same amount of rice and chicken at dinner, but now there's a cup of green beans too.  Anticipating this problem, the My Plate people have created corresponding dinnerware that visually shows you how much of your plate should be devoted to each of the food groups.  This would be a great idea for someone who likes to eat their foods in discrete categories, but I'm more of a mixed dish kind of person.  I often eat my foods in a sauce and all piled together on a plate.  Grains, proteins, and vegetables all go together but fruits are usually eaten separately, often not even in the same meal.  So how do I implement the My Plate idea if I can't see the ratios of the food groups?

Despite the intuitive plate rules, I have decided that the best thing for me is to actually count the servings.  This is not too difficult for me since I already track my calories on SparkPeople and can easily look over the day to see which foods were fruits and veggies.  It gets a bit dicey when I want to determine exactly how much of something counts as a serving, but generally I use these 3 rules for veggies:
  1. 2 cups = 1 serving fresh leafy vegetables
  2. 0.5 cup = 1 serving of cooked vegetables that reduce substantially when cooking  
  3. 1 cup = 1 serving of anything else (cooked or not)
These rules are simplistic, but I think they are true to the spirit of the thing.  With fruits I am more fast and loose.  One fruit is a serving unless it is especially small (e.g. plums, apricots, cherries), and then I just count about the amount that would make up a cup as a serving.  For dried fruits, half a cup is a serving.  I don't typically drink juice to get my fruit, but 6 oz is a serving by my accounting.  

So now all that remains is for me to actually eat my fruits and veggies.  I started on that effort this week and haven't been entirely unsuccessful, but I have had to fudge the numbers a bit to get to 4 every day.  Through no fault of my own, our household had an unanticipated influx of leftover pizza this week that had me counting pizza sauce as a partial vegetable serving and of course the summer produce season is ending so it was hard to find veggies on sale at the grocery store.  I have been quite successful with the 2 servings of fruit a day, but I think it is much harder to pack in extra veggies.  They just don't make good snacks in my opinion - they need to go with something.  Plus, I know this is a bad excuse, but it's just so disappointing how quickly fresh fruits and vegetables go bad!

My creative solutions so far in this challenge have been to add spinach to my scrambled eggs, make a peach sauce to top my evening pancake snack instead of syrup (with some bonus sliced banana on top), and to add some yummy hummus to my ready-to-go foods stash (good thing beans can double count as veggies!).  I also bought some broccoli slaw so I can hide that in basically any sauce.  Plus, I always keep no salt added canned vegetables on hand, as well as fruits canned in juice and a supply of flash-frozen produce to keep it interesting. 

What about you?  Are you a produce-eating champ, or do you struggle to fit in fruits and veggies?  What tips and tricks do you have to boost your intake?  Have you found ways to make produce more portable or less work? 

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Taking the Stairs.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 48

Stair masters

Getting Fit:  Stairs!

Now that the first month of prep has passed and I have gotten myself into the right mindset and set the backdrop, it is time to get serious about getting healthy for a potential pregnancy in 11 months.  Over the last couple of years I've made significant improvements to the kinds of foods that are in my diet and have increased my physical activity substantially, but I could still benefit from fairly substantial weight loss and fitness training.  I am not obsessed with getting to a specific weight or strength level before I get pregnant, but the healthier I can be the better.  So my plan is to continue the good things I've been doing but also add on some additional strategies throughout the year to boost my wellness.  

Although I intend to slowly build up to new goals like target amounts of weekly strength training, it's important to me to begin with stuff I can stick with and add to throughout the remaining months.  I already boosted my water intake to try to meet the target 8 glasses a day (I am still struggling with that but tend to hover closer to 7 now, rather than 6), and this week I added another challenge that takes advantage of my natural environment and activities:  stairs.  Every time I have to go somewhere on a different floor, I am now challenging myself to walk up at least one flight, if not all of them.  

Why not commit to taking advantage of all the stairs I come across?  Admittedly, it is a combination of my lack of fitness and embarrassment.  One of the buildings I spend a lot of time in has 5 floors, and for my current fitness level it is a bit challenging to walk up more than 2 flights of stairs at once, so I think I'm more likely to stick with it if I say I at least have to do one floor and then just plan to add on if it's not too daunting.  Also, I get pretty winded after 2 or more flights and often other people I know will see me and talk to me in the stairwell.  I find it embarrassing to have this happen and then be unable to keep up talking because I am out of breath, so I will get off at a different floor just to avoid that situation.  Hopefully, once I commit to going up more stairs every day and week, I will have more endurance for climbing and won't have this motive to avoid stairs anymore.  

I started the challenge this week and already the first day I found myself cheating and using the elevator, although admittedly it was because I was carrying a bunch of things that I was at risk of dropping.  But I think it will be a good challenge to keep my mind set on the idea of fitness and a healthy lifestyle.  I also think it would be even more motivating if I could see exactly how many steps I'm adding to my day and how many more calories I'm burning, so I think sometime in the near future I will buy a simple pedometer to start taking with me (I'm considering the Omron HJ-112 Digital Pocket Pedometer, which gets very positive reviews).  A handy, inexpensive gadget seems like a good way to add a sense of accomplishment to what might otherwise be a fairly thankless process.  Although maybe just being able to walk up a couple flights of stairs without getting winded will be reward enough!

What about you?  What steps are you (or did you) take to get fit before pregnancy?  What do you wish you were doing (or had done) more of?  How do you stay motivated, especially if you aren't the type of person who easily loses weight or develops lean muscle?   

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Meeting Parents. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 49

Celebrating with 101 Play Group and Bob the Builder

Meet Some Families in Your Community

 As a fairly young prospective parent and a graduate student whose peers are still fairly unsettled in terms of career and family, I have found it somewhat difficult to get to know people who are parents.  I suspect that most people naturally meet other parents when they are expecting a first child and continue to develop those relationships as their kids grow, but I think it could also be helpful to begin incorporating parents and children into my social network before I have baby #1.  With that end in mind, I incorporated two challenges into this week of my countdown.  

First, I agreed to babysit.  It can be difficult as a non-parent to mingle with families with kids because of the limited shared social opportunities that are available.  Since it doesn't seem like a great idea to be the creepy stranger who shows up at parks or kid's soccer games (for good reason), I realized the best way for me personally to meet parents around me is to serve them.  This can be especially easy if you are part of a church or a student--just put the word out there that you are available to help and you are likely to start getting requests.  This weekend, DH and I agreed to watch two kids for a family that we know from naptime to bedtime.  Admittedly, we have been babysitting for this family for a couple of years now so it wasn't a completely new item for my countdown, but lately I have started to look at these experiences as an opportunity to learn about and prepare for future parenting situations.  If you decide to try this too in your prep for TTC, bonus points if you can get your significant other to go with you.  It is always great for me to see DH interacting with children and imagine what a wonderful father he will be.  Babysitting can have the added benefit of reminding you to appreciate your current life stage.  The kids are adorable and fun, of course, but it's a good reminder of how much work it is to care for little ones full time. 

Of course, not everyone has opportunities to babysit and some people may worry that they aren't prepared to care for someone else's children because of their lack of experience.   If that describes you, it may be especially beneficial for you to seek out some parents for your social network and there are other ways to connect with them besides child care.  My second challenge for the week meets those criteria: in addition to babysitting, I decided to volunteer for the meals ministry at my church.  This group provides a service to new parents and others in our congregation who are currently in need of some extra help getting meals together for their family.  It's a new experience for me and the first informational meeting hasn't happened yet, but I'm sure I will feel good meeting others' immediate needs and may even have a chance to develop friendship with some of the families.  There will probably be plenty of opportunities to offer help and to listen in addition to just dropping off food.  Plus, I will be getting a chance to contribute to a service I plan to use in the future and will be inspired to start perfecting some healthy family recipes.

Here are the benefits (as I see them) of getting to know some families before you have kids:
  1.  Becoming a first-time parent can be stressful and it is nice to know you have some experienced guides to support you.
  2. Pregnancy and the early parenting days might be at least slightly less intimidating when you know what to expect and have some clue what you're doing.  You might never be totally prepared, but interacting with and observing other kids can definitely provide some perspective and confidence.
  3. Helping out parents in whatever way you can is a good way to figure out what kinds of help might be available to you when you become a parent.  New parents can miss out on valuable community resources if they don't know about them or aren't sure how to request assistance.
  4. Pregnancy isn't the best time to completely overhaul your social network.  You want to have support from people you know and have build lasting relationships with when you are starting a family.  Incorporating some parents into your group of friends before it's a practical necessity might not totally solve this problem, but could help you get used to balancing friendships with people at different life stages.  It might also help you figure out how to plan activities that friends with and without kids both enjoy, so you don't drift away from your non-parent friends after having a baby.  
  5. It never hurts to help someone out!  Even if you don't become best buddies with any of the families you meet, you'll have made some new acquaintances, established some goodwill, and made a positive difference in your community. 
What about you?  Do you know a lot of parents, or did you before you had your first child?  Do you think there are any benefits?  Do you struggle with maintaining friendships with people who are in a different stage of life?  How can people maintain a thriving social network regardless of their current marital or parental status?     

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Saving.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 50

Piggy Bank

Saving Up for the Baby Circus

Even the most frugal parents find that a new baby--especially a first child--comes with a lot of swag.  I refer to all the accoutrement that accompany each tiny bundle, as well as the hilarious show that is often put on by parents attempting to juggle all of these objects, as the Baby Circus.  Each little prince or princess requires a substantial up-front investment in terms of furnishings and supplies, as well as a lifetime of age-appropriate updates and upgrades.  Must-haves include a place to sleep (possibly 2 if you want to keep LO close to but not in the parental bed for some amount of time), a car seat, diapers (disposable or cloth), and clothes.  These are just the bare minimums and by themselves can add up to an investment in the hundreds (with good deal hunting) or considerably more.  Then there are some of those nice "luxury" items like a stroller, toys, breast pump, bottles, high chair, swing, etc., etc.  I don't feel that buying all of these items will make one's child happier or more well-adjusted, but they certainly seem like they would make life with an infant a bit more convenient and manageable (at least until you are so overwhelmed with objects that you have a hard time remember it's all about having a happy, well-loved child).  

Just thinking about all of the supplies needed for the great Baby Circus makes my cash hoarding instincts kick in.  Since I have the benefit of a full year to prepare for trying to conceive, I figured now was a good time to start preparing financially for having my own darling money pit, while researching sensible ways to save and cut back too.  Step one of my plan is modifying the monthly budget to incorporate a small savings each month for future conception, pregnancy, and baby expenses.  In addition to my various other savings stashes (#1 of which is saving monthly for a down payment for a future home purchase), I have now added to the monthly budget a $25 savings for pregnancy and baby.  When I have more left over each month, I save more and distribute it across my different savings categories.  It may not be a huge amount, but now I know that by the end of this year of waiting I will have at least $300 saved that is ready to be dedicated only to baby-related expenses.  If nothing else, that's at least a good amount to get started amassing a cloth diaper stash. 

I want to mention here that if DH and I didn't already have a monthly budget, I would have put that as step number one and would instead have spent this week taking action to get a financial plan in place for us (or at least to buy some books about it).  After going through Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University a few years ago and then taking a class at the local university on financial management (many community colleges and schools of continuing education offer such courses for $100-$200 dollars), I began tracking our monthly expenses and also deliberately saving for specific purposes.  We don't follow a strict system or cut off our expenses in a certain category each month because we are over budget, but I do like to stay aware of our money and feel like it is working for me and not the other way around.  At the start of the year I make a tentative budget outline (in Excel) and then after a couple months of expenses I download all our banking activity and fill in a monthly spreadsheet of our income and costs (lately I have been using the free trial version of Microsoft Money, but there are many fancier options if you are willing to pay an up-front cost for the software).

My second step for this week's theme has been to establish a designated cash envelope for future baby expenses.  This is a more opportunistic savings vehicle.  Whenever someone pays me back for something in cash or I get paid for babysitting (another activity I highly recommend as part of your preconception prep), I will stash it away in this envelope.  I'm sure some money will inevitably flow out of this fund when it turns out we actually needed some of the cash we stashed in it, but I think over the course of a year there will be a definite net gain.  Then this on-hand cash will be great for all those baby bargains I can't wait to buy--good-condition used baby supplies and clothes at consignment shops, Goodwill, and on Craigslist.

What about you?  How much do you think is a good idea to save before getting pregnant?  Are there any important expenses I'm forgetting about?  Do you have any tips for saving money on pregnancy and baby stuff?

Update:  After a great discussion on Baby Center about saving up for baby, I thought I had better mention an alternative baby savings plan that could be great for some people.  It's called the 52 Week Money Challenge and it involves putting away a different dollar amount each week that corresponds to the current week number in your countdown.  That is, week one you save one dollar, week two you save two dollars, etc. up until week 52 when you put away 52 dollars.  It sounds really manageable because the amounts aren't individually large, but by the end you save almost $1400 dollars!  This especially sounds like a good plan for reluctant savers who benefit from seeing their stash growing over time, which motivates additional saving.  Given my preference for having a set budget, though, I think saving a set dollar amount each month is personally more my style.  

For more in this countdown series, see last week's challenge about Hydration.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Countdown to TTC: Week 51

Hydrate Like a Pregnant Lady

Last week I prepared for conception (now in the not-so-distant future) by getting ready spiritually.  While I am continuing to read and pray, I also wanted to start doing something to get my body ready for the process.  I'm always hearing that the most physically demanding thing most women ever do is go through pregnancy and childbirth, and I definitely wouldn't say I'm in the best shape for such a marathon right now.  I have been on a journey for some time to eat healthier and get fit, but the actual weight loss and muscle gain associated with those changes have been minimal.  Now that I have a target date and a specific fitness challenge to prepare for, I am hoping to make some slow but positive change in the next 51 weeks.  When I go to the doctor for a preconception checkup, I want to be able to report that I've been doing everything I can to prepare for a healthy pregnancy.  

However, overhauling my life all at once seems like a stressful way to approach the situation.  I am starting early, so why not take things a step at a time, starting with something easy?  

The first "easy" task that came to mind was hydration.  It's simple, it's easily measurable, and it's important.  Plus, fluid intake needs increase significantly during pregnancy and low amniotic fluid is a common reason for term inductions.  I recently saw several episodes of A Baby Story and Baby's First Day on TLC in which women were induced at term for low amniotic fluid--a situation I'd like to avoid.  Admittedly, these inductions may not be necessary (see this great article on Science & Sensibility on the topic for more info), but it's also possible to reduce the risk of getting a diagnosis of low amniotic fluid in the first place by staying well-hydrated.  But apparently staying well-hydrated at term means drinking 2.5 liters (that's nearly 11 cups) of water per day!  So getting used to drinking plenty of water before getting pregnant seemed like a good idea.

Following that thought process, I set a goal for this week of drinking 8 glasses (64 oz) of water a day.  I am already a SparkPeople member, so tracking my water intake is as simple as clicking on an arrow each time I finish another cup.  Unfortunately, it turns out actually drinking that much water isn't as easy as I thought it would be.

I'm currently only on day 3 of this challenge, and so far I haven't met my goal.  Turns out I like to drink 5-6 glasses a day and anything more than that feels unpleasant.  It's not my ideal to have to pee every 30 minutes for half of the evening either (because I am trying to make up for not drinking during the day).  I'm sure I used to drink a lot more without issue at one time, but I have gotten into bad habits in the years since I went off to college and no longer had a ready supply of cool, filtered water and ice.  But I think by the end of the week I'll have achieved my 8 glasses a day and figured out some strategies to make it less challenging.  And I guess eventually one's body must become used to the better hydration and keep some of it in longer!  Here's what I've tried so far:

  1. Buy a water bottle that keeps liquid cold for a long time and doesn't sweat.  I decided to go with the Trudeau Cool Off 24-Ounce Hydration Bottle because it is fairly affordable, has air insulation that prevents sweating, includes a straw so it doesn't spill all over you when you drink out of it but can still be closed, and comes in a cute pink color.  I drink a lot more using this than I do with smaller bottles, even though it is a bit large for carrying around.  And the fact that the water stays cold really helps. 
  2. Figure out a good way to track your intake.  You think you will know how much you are drinking, but I found that method leads to extreme overestimation on my part.  The water bottle I got holds exactly 3 cups of liquid, so that way I know if I drink all of it and fill it 3 times during the day, I have exceeded my goal.  I also recommend using a ticker or counter throughout the day so you don't start fudging the numbers come evening.  As I said earlier, I like the one on the SparkPeople nutrition tracker.
  3. Distribute your consumption throughout the day!  This is my main problem--I think I am drinking at work but I get distracted and then realize I have only had one cup of water in 5 hours.  If you are then determined to make up for it the rest of the day, you will find yourself in the same bladder-busting situation I did.  

What about you?  Do you have any suggestions on how to drink more water?  Any pregnancy stories about hydration?   What do you think I should do in the next 50 weeks to prepare for conception?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Countdown to TTC: 52 Weeks of Preparation

Week 52:  Pray Like a Mom

I am still planning to post the remainder of my Countdown to TTC Checklists, but a more pressing issue has inspired me to start writing another series.  DH and I are finally ready to start trying to year from now!  Although we've always wanted a family and just celebrated our 3-year wedding anniversary, the timing just hasn't been right.  We are both graduate students on an uncertain completion timeline.  But it looks almost definite that DH will be finished within the next 2 years (maybe in only a year) and I am confident I can wrap up by then as well if I have a sufficient incentive (like a massive baby belly and a fierce desire to stay home with my newborn). That means a TTC start date one year from now would allow us to get pregnant no sooner than both of us should be wrapping up our studies--and because of the academic job market we would already know about DH's job by then too.  On the other hand, we are well aware that things don't always work out like we plan and we want to trust God for His timing, so we are approaching this decision prayerfully.

By now it is probably clear that I like to approach challenges with organization and thoughtful preparation, and this one is no different.  I downloaded my countdown clock which is ticking away in the corner of my computer right now (check out TimeLeft if you want to start your own -- the first countdown is free)  and now I am ready to start preparing for whatever God and my body have in store.

At first I struggled with what to do my first week, since it would set the tone for the rest of the year.  Should I do something easy, to smooth the way and make me feel capable of seeing through the other 51 weeks?  Should I go with something health-related since one of my biggest goals is preparing for a healthy pregnancy with minimal complications?  Then I realized that of course the first thing I should do, really any time I am preparing for such a big life change, is pray!  I want these habits I take on each week to extend throughout TTC and pregnancy, and being prayerful and connected with God should be first and foremost among those.  Everything about becoming a parent can be scary and stressful, but if I am getting my strength from my Creator, the one who formed me in the womb, I know I will have peace and assurance throughout the process.

So, this week I combed the Old and New Testaments for verses about conception, birth, parenthood, children, and God's sovereignty over them all.  I am planning to read at least one verse every day for the next year and meditate on it, as well as praying for God's guidance.  Below are some of the verses I found that most spoke to me: 

God, the Creator:  As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother's womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.  --Ecclesiastes 11:5 

God's Timing:  Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust Him, and He will help you. Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for Him to act.  --Psalms 37:5,7 

Infertility:   He settles the barren woman in her home as a happy mother of children. Praise the Lord.  --Psalms 113:9 

Preconception Health:  And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”  --Judges 13: 3-7 

In the Womb:  For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.  --Psalms 139:13-16 

Childbirth:  A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; But as soon as she has given birth, she no longer remembers the anguish, For joy that a child has been born into the world.  --John 16:21 

Parental Instruction: Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  --Deuteronomy 11:18-19


What about you?  Do you have any favorite inspirational words for prospective mommies and daddies?  What are you or did you do as you counted down to trying to conceive?  What do you think I should do in the next 51 weeks?