Lightened-up Tuna Noodle Casserole + Mercury FAQ

People often ask me where I get my recipe inspiration from and the answer is pretty simple. As a dietitian I talk about and think about food pretty much 90% of my day. When I’m not coming up with meal and snack ideas for my clients, it’s a pretty sure bet I’m thinking about my OWN next meal or snack, a recipe I want to try or a restaurant I want to eat at. All of these thoughts are spurred by one thing: my own cravings.

My closest family and friends can attest that I have some pretty intense and specific cravings. One time my friend and I drove all around town while I was visiting her in South Carolina (Google mapping the entire way) looking for chocolate cake. Ice cream wouldn’t do. I needed something dense and rich. Luckily, we found a little diner that sold hot fudge brownie sundaes that sufficed. A couple weekends ago, after eating and drinking a little too much the night before, I craved a kale salad with blue cheese, avocado and chicken. Random, but goes to show how well your body knows itself and what it wants. You need to listen to it, whether it be a salad or dessert.

This brings us to our recipe, inspired by most recent craving, tuna noodle casserole. This is strange for multiple reasons: 1.) This tends to be a winter “comfort dish” and its 80O outside here in Columbus and 2.) I’ve never actually HAD tuna noodle casserole….I know, weird. My mom never made this for us growing up because her mom made it all the time so she got sick of it. Regardless, it was all I could think about as I drove home from my best friend’s bachelorette this morning.

This dish is super easy, affordable and packed with protein from the tuna and vitamins and minerals thanks to packing it full of extra veggies. Enjoy with a light salad or glass of milk to complete the meal!

Before we get to the recipe, I want to address if a common misconception about the mercury levels in tuna. Yes, tuna does contain mercury, but all fish will contain at least trace amounts. However, not all tuna is created equal. Choose canned, light tuna which has lower levels of mercury. According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it is safe to consume 2-3 servings of this variety of tuna each week, even when pregnant. See this fact sheet for more specifics if your interested. Of course, these are general recommendations so consult with your doctor or registered dietitian for your own unique needs.

Finally, here we are……ENJOY.

 

Lightened-up Tuna Noodle Casserole

Serves 5-6

Ingredients:

2 cups dry pasta noodles (8oz)*

1 onion, diced

8 oz mushrooms, sliced

1 Tbs. olive oil

1-7oz can tuna

2 cups skim or low-fat milk

½ cup reduced-sodium chicken broth

6 Tbs. flour

½ cup Parmesan cheese

½ cup frozen peas

2 cups fresh spinach

salt and pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350O F. Cook noodles according to package directions.

Place a large skillet over medium heat and add olive oil, onion, mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt. Sauté until vegetables are cooked (onions should be translucent). Add chicken broth and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add flour and stir to coat the vegetables. Slowly add the milk and bring to a simmer, continuously stirring to prevent burning. Add tuna, cheese, spinach, peas, and more pepper and salt if desired.

Pour mixture into a sprayed 8X8 baking dish. Cook for 15-20 minutes to allow the dish to thicken to desired consistency.

*I used Explore Cuisine brand chickpea pasta for an extra dose of protein.

 

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National Eating Disorder Awareness Week: My Story

Today marks the end of NEDA (National Eating Disorder Awareness) week. As this is a topic near and dear to my heart, I wrote a brief post at the start of the week acknowledging my own disordered eating past. I was not intending to delve more into my story than that, but after a friend reached out to me, thanking me for being so open and honest, I decided I wanted to. I want to help (the many) other’s who are grappling with their own issues with food and exercise. Forewarning, there are no pictures in this post, just lots of words.

My story began when I was in middle school. Like many kids going through that lovely time (AKA puberty) I gained weight, got hips and boobs and got “chubby”. I was not extremely overweight by any means, but I definitely ate for comfort and consumed more than I actually needed. I did not feel comfortable in my body. I tried many things to get rid of the weight, but could never follow through (because they were too extreme). Finally, I was done with feeling bad about myself and unhealthy so I made the decision to try a more moderate, doable approach. I started exercising on our elliptical in the basement for 15 minutes a couple days a week, switched to smaller plates, didn’t go back for seconds and allowed myself a sweet treat every other day as opposed to everyday.

It worked. I gradually lost weight in a healthy manner while still maintaining a healthy relationship with food and fitness. I still ate all my favorite foods, skipped working out when something else came up without feeling bad about it and just felt GOOD. Friends and family noticed too. They complimented me on weight loss, which further spurred me to continue my weight loss journey.

Well, this is where things flipped from healthy to disordered. To keep losing, I realized that I needed to up the anti. I started counting calories, exercised everyday for 30-60 minutes and completely eliminated foods I labeled (or rather society) labeled as “bad”. I analyzed every food item to make sure I chose the lowest calorie option, always had to include cardio in my workouts and never allowed myself dessert. As I continued to lose weight, my energy levels continued to drop as well while my obsession with food heightened. I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I was hungry and constantly thought about food. I created food rules such as only eating every 4 hours, not eating past 7pm and only eating a certain amount of calories at each meal/snack. I was miserable, but I was losing weight, which was supposed to make me happier…I thought.

Flash forward to college. I lived in the dorms my first two and didn’t have access, the time or the desire to count calories in the dining court. I also joined a sorority and joined in on the fun festivities. You know, the one’s that involve alcohol and drunk food calories…This inevitably helped me gain some weight and also helped me naturally relax on the food front. I mean, hanging out with my friends, going to frat parties and getting pizza was WAY too much fun. I still was the cardio queen and frequented the gym 6X/week, but I was in a healthier spot both mentally and physically.

Once I graduated and moved to Ohio to complete my internship and master’s degree, I moved even further in my understanding of eating disorders, including my own. The real flip happened when I went through a breakup (my first one). I was devastated and went through all the crappy emotions that came along with it. Finally, I knew I needed to make a change and do something to make myself feel better. So, I recruited one of my best friends (hi Court!) to teach me how to use all of the super intimidating weight machines at the gym. I wanted to build physical strength to help rebuild my mental strength.

As I began to build muscle, my body gave me signals it needed more fuel. I had the decision to deprive it like I had in the past, or listen to my body and give it what it was telling me. I decided on the later. It was difficult at first, because that little voice in the back of my head was saying things like “that’s more than you used to eat, your going to gain weight” and “are you really hungry again?! You can’t be”. I was able to defeat this, but it took some effort (read more details about how I actually gained the weight here and here).

Now here we are in the present and I am 15 lbs. heavier than I was 6 months ago. I finally feel like I have found the elusive “happy weight” or set point. Where my body is naturally supposed to be and where I can LIVE. Living to me means eating dessert when I want it, eating out at a new restaurant each week, skipping workouts to imbibe in happy hours and drinking too much with friends every now and again. Living to me is not religiously calorie counting, denying myself my favorite foods or running my body into the ground through intense workouts. Yes, I have more body fat and a bigger jean dress size, but I also have curves now and am not a slave to food anymore.

I’m not going to lie, I will always be a person who lives to eat (I am a dietitian and foodie after all!), but now I have found and mastered the delicate balance between living to eat and simply eating to live. While NEDA is at an end, that does not mean the awareness is. If you are struggling with an eating disorder or any sort of disordered relationship with food or exercise, I encourage you to get professional help. Research shows that the sooner you get and receive treatment, the better for long-term recovery. That being said, it is never too late to get help. Here are some helpful resources to find it, please utilize them and share with others who might benefit:

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

http://www.centerforbalancedliving.org

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

If you made it all the way here, thank you for listening to my story. If you personally relate, I hope this helps you. If you don’t, I still hope you found this post valuable in educating you more about eating disorders.

When You Need To Gain Some Healthy Weight Part 2: The Actual Weight Gain

This is an addendum to my original post back in March when I made the decision to gain some healthy weight for my health. I discussed it in detail here, but in brief, it was a hard decision to make and hard thing to talk about (and achieve!) in a culture so focused on weight-loss and dieting. It also put me in a vulnerable position, as people are quick to judge others in terms of their bodies, food choices and lifestyles.

I’m glad I did because the outpouring of support was outstanding and it was my most popular blog post by far. Many of you related directly and others of you might have different goals, but could understand and respect the situation in different ways.

So what happened? Well, I am here to report that I have successfully gained 15 lbs. and the weight-gain train is still going strong.

How I did it: Obviously eating more and decreasing my activity. This was hard and difficult at first and I felt extremely full, bloated and uncomfortable for the first couple of weeks/month. However, after that, my body caught on pretty quickly and I was (and still am) hungry ALL THE DANG TIME! This was interesting to experience myself, because my eating disorder clients go though this during their weight restoration phase of treatment. Once your body’s metabolism levels out, it goes into a hyper-metabolic state where it utilizes tons of energy to repair the body. It is not uncommon for an underweight anorexic to be placed on a 3,000+ kcals/day meal plan. I was surprised I was experiencing this phenomenon, because, at the time, I felt like I was eating enough and was satisfied. Obviously I was not, because my body latched on and was saying “give me all the food” and I eat significantly more now then I ever have before.

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How I’m doing physically: Definitely went up sizes in everything. Chest, hips, butt, legs, waist..all of it! All my clothes fit tighter now and I had to donate all of my jeans because I cannot fit in them anymore. While this was difficult at first, I have grown to love my body and feel more “womanly” now. I have boobs and curves now and it feels great and healthy! Women are meant to have fat, and while I don’t denounce women with a six-pack (good for you!), I know I feel happiest when I don’t. That being said, I know for a fact (thanks to a fancy machine) that I have gained a significant amount of muscle in addition to some fat. I can’t stress enough the fact that my activity has decreased, but I have increased muscle mass. Goes to show the power of rest and that more/higher intensity is not always the best.

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 How I’m doing mentally: It was rough at first mostly because, again, I was going against the grain of what everyone else seemed to be focusing on. I also felt guilty talking about it to a lot of people in my life due to their own struggles with losing weight or history of disordered eating. I did not want to focus on weight in an effort not to trigger someone I cared about. While I felt good and strong some days, I also had days where it was difficult for me to experience not being able to fit into my clothes. Even my stretchy workout clothes felt uncomfortable. I also had bad body image days where I felt “fat” or gross in my own skin. Goes to show I am human and everyone has these days. I am able to combat these thoughts with the facts (I am building muscle, muscle requires more energy and weighs more than fat, etc.) but they still present themselves sometimes, unfortunately.

Lessons I’ve learned:

Your hunger cues will take awhile to come back, but they WILL come back. The longer you’ve been under-fueling, the longer it will take for them to normalize, but the best thing to do is keep trucking through and eating.

-Your body is smart and you have to trust it, even though it will be hard at times

-It will be hard not to compare yourself to others

-It will be annoying to eat a lot and all the time

-Eat when your body tells you, not when society says to-I went from 3 meals and 2-3 snacks to eating up to 7-8 times/day because my body was hungry! I was building muscle and required more energy.

-You will feel a million times better after you gain the “healthy” weight :).

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Where I’m going from here: I am still in the process of seeing where my body’s natural set point is in terms of weight. I am still finagling my meals and foods to accommodate my higher metabolism and energy needs. For instance, I have recognized I need to beef up all my meals, but especially breakfast. So now I use a whole banana instead of half, more milk, and add an egg to it for more calories and nutrients. I also have noticed I need a nighttime snack even if I’m not necessarily hungry for it or else I wakeup in the middle of the night hungry and need to get up and eat. I am still learning and some days are frustrating because of it, but I am confident that my body knows what it is doing. The best thing I can do is listen to it because it got me this far already!

Some Pictures from 2016, Plus the Worst Thing you can do for Your Health in 2017

The worst thing you can do for your health this upcoming year is…compare yourself to others. That’s right, it’s not eating too much sugar, skipping your workout bypassing all vegetable, so on and so forth. No, it’s falling into the ever-so-likely and deathly comparison trap. We’ve all done it before. While out to eat with friends, you might really want the burger and fries, but your friends all order salad with grilled chicken so that’s what you make yourself do. You then proceed to eye every cheeseburger that passes your table while you wait for your unappealing bowl of greens and leave the restaurant feeling unsatisfied. Or maybe you notice a fellow gym-goer who does 30 minutes of the stair master before taking an intense 60-minute spin class with you. You begin to think your not doing enough and should add more exercise to your workout.

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I find myself doing this too! My first job after graduating was in a hospital and one day I overheard two nurses talking. One of them was pregnant and was complaining to her friend about how she’s been eating SO much lately. “I’m eating every four hours! I feel like a pig”. Ummmmm, I thought, I get hungry and eat almost every 2 hours…does that make me a “pig” if I’m eating more than a pregnant lady?! Of course not, and I know enough to know better. Even so, it is human nature to compare ourselves to others. However, this is extremely counterproductive.

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Everyone has different bodies and metabolisms. Some people need 3,000 calories/day to be healthy and some people need half that amount. Some people can workout intensely almost everyday (i.e. fitness competitors, marathoners, gym rats) while for other people that wears their bodies down, decreases their immunity and makes them sick. Everyone has different. Life circumstances are different. Your salad-ordering friend may have had a heavier lunch or was not feeling that hungry. Or maybe, she truly was craving a salad and was listening to her body! If your body on the other hand is craving a cheeseburger, you should listen to it too! Additionally, we are all different ages, have different lifestyles, tastes, preferences and much more. In short, we are all very different so why would we compare ourselves to someone else??

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Mimicking what others are doing instead of what is right for you is the worst thing you can do for your health in 2017 or EVER. I say this every post, but your body is REALLY smart and denying it what it needs by doing something else is not going to work in the long run. Eventually, it will rebel and you’ll be back to square one. For instance, after that salad you really didn’t want, your 10X more likely to eat something else to compensate, leading you to consume the same amount of energy that the cheeseburger would have provided in the first place.

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So, at this time of year where diet programs are a plenty (“Eat These 5 Foods to Lose all that Belly Fat Once and for All!!!”, “The 1,200 calorie Diet for Weight-loss”) and your tempted to buy in, remember there is no quick fix and there is no cookie-cutter option for everyone. Make small, realistic goals not all-or-nothing resolutions that are right for YOU, not someone else. Happy New Year friends <3!!

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Crockpot Italian Stuffed Peppers

Most of us live perpetually busy lifestyles where we are constantly on-the-go. This oftentimes makes it difficult to shop, prepare and sit down to complete, nutritious meals. This, in turn, makes it easier to simply rely on the drive-thru or prepackaged meals when you come home starving or are running out the door for after-work activities.

CROCKPOT TO THE RESCUE!!! I tell my busiest clients to dust of this handy piece of cooking equipment and to make it their new best friend. Why? It does 95% of the work for you. All you have to do is a little prep before and then enjoy the fruits of it’s labor afterwards. Plus, there’s nothing better than walking into your house and smelling a delicious meal after a long day. The only finger you have to lift simply involves holding your utensils to dig in. Perfection.

 

Crockpot Italian Stuffed Peppers

Serves 6

Ingredients:

6 bell peppers, cored and seeds removed

1 lb. ground turkey/lean ground beef

2 eggs, beaten

½ cup Parmesan cheese

1 cup marinara sauce

2/3 cup quinoa, uncooked

1 cup onion, diced

4 tsp. Italian seasoning

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Additional marinara sauce for topping

Directions:

In a large bowl combine all ingredients from ground meat to Italian seasoning. Stuff equal amounts into each bell pepper.

Pour about ½-3/4 cup of water into the crockpot (this prevents peppers from sticking). Place stuffed bell peppers inside, cover and set on low for 6 hours. Once done, split peppers in half and top with additional marinara sauce and sprinkle on the mozzarella cheese. Cover and warm until cheese has melted. Enjoy!

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Why You Should Be Eating More Protein at Breakfast & How to Do It

Unless you have time to go all out in the mornings, most breakfasts are simple, quick and easy to prepare and eat, oftentimes on the run. Things like cereal, granola bars, toast, fruit, etc. While I would rather see someone eat at least SOMETHING, these things lack protein, which leaves you starving and raiding the office candy jar before 10am. I can’t tell you how many clients come to me complaining that they can never get full and the culprit usually starts with a sparse, carbohydrate-based morning meal.

Here are the reasons why I recommend beefing up (haha) your morning meal:

  • Consuming a higher protein diet has been show to reduce overall calorie consumption throughout the day.
  • Protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates, keeping you fuller longer.
  • It reduces the hunger hormone ghrelin and increases the satiety hormone peptide YY.
  • Protein helps speed up your metabolism because it takes more energy for your body to digest. This is called the thermic effect of food.

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And here are some tips on how to do it if you eat:

  • Oatmeal or Cereal
    • Cook it in milk instead of water (oats) or drink all the milk (cereal) (+8g PRO)
    • Add 1 Tbs. nut butter or 2 Tbs. whole nuts (+4g PRO)
    • Stir in an egg white (oats) (+3g PRO)
  • Toast, bagel, English muffin
    • Choose the whole grain variety (+2-4g PRO)
    • Swap butter for nut butter (+4g PRO)
    • Swap cream cheese for vanilla Greek yogurt (+6g PRO)
  • Eggs
    • Use the WHOLE egg, not just the white (+3g PRO)
    • Add a slice of cheese (+5g PRO)
  • Granola bar
    • Crumble on top of a container of Greek yogurt (+12g PRO)
    • Choose a high-protein brand (Kashi GoLean, Luna bars, RX bars are some of my favorites)
    • Add a hardboiled egg or a handful of nuts (+4-6g PRO)

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Now, is it breakfast yet?!?

When Your Fitness Identity Changes

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time. I’ve started and stopped multiple times, each time because the words just weren’t coming out as fluently or as concisely as I wanted them to in order to truly convey my thoughts and feelings. Come to find out, that’s because I was going through an identity crisis of sorts.

You see, for a long time, I’ve been known by friends, colleagues and family members as the“fit” girl. I’ve taught spin classes for 6 years and recently decided to take the leap of faith to get certified to teach BodyPump as well. I have been a religious 6am gym-goer 5-6X/week for as long as I can remember and always chose the stairs vs. the elevator whenever possible. I was constantly pinning new workouts to try in order to challenge myself and it was truly difficult for me to take rest days even though I knew my body needed them. I also had have more workout clothes than regular ones. Basically, I LOVED working out. Not because it made me look good, or to burn calories, or any of the other silly reasons people force themselves to workout, but because I truly ENJOYED it. It was a part of me.
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Recently, however, my passions and priorities have changed. It all started a couple months before I graduated grad school this past May. I had just started my first “big girl” job as a dietitian working part-time at a hospital. Obviously, working combined with classes and finishing up my master’s project limited my time, but I still desired to workout and made an effort to hit the gym, albeit less frequently, because I still wanted to. After graduation I went to full-time and this is where the real change happened.

I had to be at work from 8a-4/5p and it was a little over a 30 minute commute (on a good day, that is). I thought, “well this sucks, but I’ll just have to get used to it”. I recognized that I no longer had the flexible schedule of a college student or a university gym within walking distance to keep me motivated.

I purchased a pricey membership at a gym right up the road because it was the only one that could accommodate my 5am workout schedule. I continued like usual, lifting weights for 45min-1hr before work. Then, I would hurry back home to shower, get ready and make the drive to work, eating my oatmeal cold in the car on the way (so NOT ideal). The gym did not have spin bikes (the horror) or my beloved group fitness classes and, frankly, I was getting bored just lifting weights all the time. Yes, I gained muscle mass and liked how strong I was getting, but the fun and variety was gone. For the first time in a long time, I really had to force myself to exercise and the early morning wakeup calls were getting to me. I’d arrive home exhausted and couldn’t wait to crawl into bed.

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I remember walking to my car one morning feeling so tired, irritable and just plain miserable. That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t healthy for me anymore. Working out was taking away my energy and happiness, not providing it like it used to. I took a little hiatus from the gym and mostly walked outside after work or during my lunch break with the occasional at-home yoga session thrown in there. Once I was mentally recharged and ready, I entered the gym once again, but this time only 2-3X/week. I only went when I truly wanted to and my body felt great! Better than it did when I was working out twice as much.

Fast forward a couple of months and I got a new job, my dream job, working in the mental health field as an eating disorder dietitian. I saw even more clearly how our society’s perception of health and fitness is so skewed and causes so many UN-healthy behaviors towards exercise (and eating of course, but that’s another topic for another day). There are so many rules we are taught to believe we must follow including “you must exercise 5X/week for 30-60 minutes” and “it must be a perfect combination of strength, cardio and flexibility training” and “you must push yourself each workout or it doesn’t count”, blah blah blah! Whatever happened to simply finding and doing what you love?

Fit doesn’t mean working out everyday or lifting weights or running a 5K or doing cross fit. Exercise doesn’t have to involve a gym. These days I work out a lot less and I don’t push myself nearly as hard as I once did. Do I still enjoy working out? Yes, but not as much as I once did so I do it less frequently. Am I scared I’m going to lose my definition, muscle and overall fitness? At first, but honestly, I haven’t seen this happen yet which goes to show how crucial rest days really are and how you don’t have to work out at high intensities everyday for results. Do I consider myself lazy now that I choose sleeping in or Netflix on the couch over working out? NO. I consider myself more balanced and health-IER.

Fitness is not stagnant, it is fluid and changes throughout the lifespan, just like everything else. Maybe you used to be really into running but now, walking sounds more appealing. Maybe you trained for a bikini competition and lifted weights all day err day but now yoga is what you like doing. Go with it. Maybe one day “enter old exercise of choice” will sound amazing again, maybe it won’t, who knows? Don’t force yourself to stay stuck in old habits or identities. The body is smart and knows what it wants. Don’t compare yourself to others or to the person you used to be. Move how you want, when you want and in a way that feels good friends. That’s what “fit” truly is.

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