How to Kick the Sugar Habit

Trying to cut down on sugar? Maybe you’ve heard all the health warnings from doctors and government officials, or maybe you’re trying to look better in your swimsuit.

Whatever the reason, you’re on the right track -- Americans are still eating and drinking two or three times the amount of sugar recommended for optimal health. Scientific studies have linked sugar overloads to obesity and health concerns including diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease, stroke, pancreatic cancer and cognitive decline. 

Sugar, which can fuel the brain and temporarily boost energy, occurs naturally in many nutritious fruits, vegetables and dairy products. But it also gets added to a number of foods we may eat every day. The American Heart Association advises women consume no more than 100 calories’ worth of added sugars per day, which comes out to about six teaspoons. But we often get more of the sweet stuff than we realize; manufacturers inject different forms of sweeteners to heighten taste and improve texture in a surprising variety of products.

To gain more control over your own sugar cravings -- and your family’s -- try these health tips from registered dietician Elisa Zied, mother of two and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips.

Learn Label Language 

Sugar takes many forms, but all of them work in the same way on your body. And even if you skip dessert and take your coffee black, you may still be eating extra sugar in items like pasta sauce, ketchup, salad dressings and frozen dinners without realizing it.

When you shop, check labels closely for things like corn syrup, honey, molasses and nectar, as well as words in the “ose” family:  sucrose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose and glucose. The higher up these words appear on the ingredient list, the higher the sugar content. (Check what’s in your family’s favorite foods at the USDA Database.)

Be Skeptical of “Health” Foods

Don’t assume that products touted as “low-calorie” or “fat-free” are good for you: To make them more palatable, many manufacturers compensate by boosting their sugar content. For instance, one particular brand of “light” whole-wheat bread boasts that it has just 45 calories a slice, but if you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see it contains not only high fructose corn syrup, but also honey, molasses, brown sugar and sucralose -- hardly a dietary bargain! Watch the labels and choose fresh foods as often as possible.

Do Sugar Swaps

When sugar cravings hit, satisfy your sweet tooth with healthier substitutes. For instance, top oatmeal with half a baked apple instead of brown sugar, and freeze banana slices or grapes for a sweet snack.

If you’re baking cookies or cakes for the family, use unsweetened applesauce to replace some of the sugar in the recipe. And when you serve ice cream, spoon a small portion into the bowls and then top them with lots of fresh berries.

Serve Better Beverages

Sweetened beverages -- including fruit drinks -- are the No. 1 source of added sugar in our diets. Just a 12-ounce can of regular soda packs 8 teaspoons of sugar, or 130 calories, while adding no nutrients. Stock your fridge with healthier options, such as water or seltzer with a squeeze of lime, or a blueberry-banana smoothie straight from your blender.

Leave Yourself Some Wiggle Room

It’s okay to indulge in an occasional sweet treat as long as you’re watching your total calories and filling up with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat proteins. “Sometimes it’s okay to have something simply because you want it and it tastes good,” says Zied -- whether that means a glass of low-fat chocolate milk for your kids or an ice pop on a hot summer day for you.

Healthy Relationships: Should Your Husband Be Your Best Friend?

It’s the height of wedding season, and couples across America are kicking off their new lives with heartfelt toasts that begin, “Today I married my best friend.” Misty-eyed guests smile at the sentiment -- and why not? Over the years, our culture has romanticized the idea that healthy relationships mean husbands and wives are BFFs as well as loving partners.

But is that such a good thing? A growing number of experts say no.

“Friendship is a huge part of marriage, but expecting your spouse to be your everything is unrealistic and can strain the relationship,” says psychotherapist Joyce Marter, CEO of Urban Balance LLC, a counseling group practice in Chicago. “Women need and deserve multiple people in our lives who love us and offer us support, whether it’s for a crisis like a serious illness or a daily drama with a nasty coworker. It’s not fair or wise to rely on your husband for all your friendship needs.”

Here are the top three reasons your healthy relationships and marriages can benefit from maintaining close female friendships:

 

It’s Good for Your Marriage.

Couples who are BFFs tend to be enmeshed, meaning they have few outside friendships and spend virtually all of their spare time together. In other words, they live in a bubble. How boring is that? 

“It’s a setup for too much dependency and isolation from other sources of support,” Marter explains. Far better is to enjoy what she calls a “healthy separation,” where spouses have different friends, work and hobbies that make them interesting and whole. You’ll bring more to the marriage party if you have a life and experiences outside of your relationship.

 

It’s Good for You.

Be honest -- does your husband really want to hear about your hair problems, the mom-cliques at your kids’ school, or who got the final rose on The Bachelorette? Probably not. But your BFF does! She’ll serve as a relief valve for your marriage -- think Meredith and Cristina in Grey’s Anatomy, who call each other “my person.”

As Marter points out, “Men and women process life, emotions and relationships differently. Men like to problem-solve and make decisions, but women like to listen to details, talk things through and offer empathy. We have different menus of the kind of support we can provide, and it’s good for women to have the support of a husband and a BFF.”

 

It’s Good for Your Kids

By keeping tight bonds with girlfriends, you’ll give your children the gift of positive role models and adults who care about them outside the family -- the “it takes a village” concept. They’ll grow up knowing the value of developing a strong social network of healthy relationships to rely on in good times and bad. What’s more, a mom who enjoys the support and perspective of gal-pals will be a happier, less-stressed parent. Call it a win-win all around!

Mediterranean Diet Recipes Your Family Will Love

You’ve probably heard the recent news about a study focusing on the Mediterranean diet, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It basically confirmed what doctors had suspected for years: Eating the foods popular in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy can help people at high risk of heart disease avoid strokes, heart attacks and even death.

The Mediterranean diet -- often referred to as the “heart-healthy diet" -- is known to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of LDL cholesterol, or the “bad” cholesterol that’s more likely to build up deposits in your arteries, says Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, founder and president of Nutritious Life and author of The New You and Improved Diet, notes that . Studies show that a Mediterranean-type diet is advantageous across the board for cardiovascular risk factors, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar levels

More than that, “it incorporates the basics of healthy eating, with a focus on small portions of high-quality foods that are fresh, seasonal and local,” says Glassman. The Mediterranean plan is much more than just a diet, she adds; it’s an overall approach to healthy living that emphasizes getting plenty of exercise and enjoying meals with family and friends.

Even if your heart is healthy, you and your family can still benefit from eating the foods typical of Mediterranean cuisine. Among them: olive oil; nuts; oily fish like salmon and mackerel (all rich in omega-3 fatty acids); garlic (which can lower blood pressure); herbs and spices such as cinnamon and rosemary; and legumes like peas and beans (rich in protein and fiber).

These recipes from Glassman will help introduce your family to the benefits of Mediterranean eating. Each makes one serving, so increase the ingredients accordingly for delicious meals that will be popular with everyone.

MEDITERRANEAN SHRIMP PITA

This recipe is a fun meal to make together. Line up the ingredients as you would with tacos, and let everyone fill up their own pita!

Ingredients

•  3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

•  2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

•  1 teaspoon chopped garlic

•  3 jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined (about 3 ounces)

•  1/2 cup baby arugula

•  1 tablespoon chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomato halves (about 2)

•  1/4 teaspoon dried basil

•  1/4 teaspoon dried parsley

•  2 tablespoons hummus

•  1 mini whole wheat pita 

Directions

1. Combine the lemon juice, oil, and garlic in a small bowl. Transfer the mixture to a zipper-lock bag and add the shrimp, tossing to coat. Refrigerate 15 minutes.

2. Coat a nonstick grill pan with olive oil cooking spray. Preheat over medium-high heat. Toss the arugula and tomatoes in a small bowl.

3. Remove the shrimp from the marinade. Sprinkle the basil and parsley on both sides and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

4. Cook 2 minutes per side, or until opaque throughout, flipping halfway through. Let cool 1 to 2 minutes and cut into 1/2″ pieces.

5. Spread the hummus inside the pita. Fill with the arugula-tomato mixture, then add the shrimp.

WHITE BEAN & VEGETABLE SOUP

Ingredients

•  8 ounces low-sodium vegetable broth

•  ½ cup water

•  2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

•  2 tablespoons each chopped carrot, broccoli, and onion

•  ¼ cup mushrooms, sliced

•  ⅓ cup frozen green peas

•  1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

•  ½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

•  Salt and pepper, to taste

•  ½ cup canned white beans, rinsed and drained

•  1 tablespoon walnuts, finely chopped

Directions

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add carrot, broccoli, onion, mushrooms, peas, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables release some of their juices, about 3 to 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and continue to cook, stirring often, until most of the liquid has evaporated.

2. Add broth, water and white beans; bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables and beans are tender.

3. Remove from heat, add walnuts and serve.

SNACKS & SIDES

  • Mediterranean Mix: 8 chopped olives, 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts, 4 cherry tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon capers, ¼ cup celery chopped and spread on endive

  • Mediterranean Tomato: 1 large tomato slice with 1 ounce goat cheese, drizzled with fig vinegar

  • Mediterranean Dip: 2 tablespoons hummus with 1 cup red and yellow pepper

How to Get Your Kids to Really Talk to You

Does it seem like an effort to get your children to say anything to you besides, “Fine” and “What’s for dinner?” Lack of communication can make parents feel closed off from their own kids.

But don’t despair! You can get kids to talk to you -- really. Try these six suggestions from experts:

1: Don’t compare yourself to TV families.
If you watch shows like Modern Family or The Middle and wonder why your kids aren’t as chatty as the kids on those shows, you’re not alone. “Parents see kids talking to their parents on TV and they start worrying that they’re not doing enough of it,” says Carl Grody, LISW, MSW, a social worker who specializes in child, adolescent and family therapy in Columbus, Ohio. “Those [TV] parents have scriptwriters and 22 minutes of airtime to solve problems. In real life, it takes longer to make changes, but the changes are real, not made up.”

2: Pause and take a deep breath.
Telling your kids you’re upset about their one-word answers will only make the problem worse. “If you seem jittery, you may be projecting this to your kids and that stress is more likely to push them away than it is to draw them in,” Grody adds. Calm down and put things in perspective. You’re probably doing better than you think in the communication department.

3: Quiet your inner interviewer.
Instead of peppering your child with questions every day, ask him just one. “This may seem insufficient, but as you have more success getting him to answer you once, your child will feel more comfortable chatting and may even start volunteering more information,” Grody says.

4: Put down your phone!
If you want your kids to talk to you, set aside your cell, tablet or any other electronic distraction, says Loni Coombs, author of You're Perfect…and Other Lies Parents Tell. Make your body language open and assuring: Turn your whole body toward your child and make eye contact. “This is important, because when there is something really important that they need to talk about, they will feel like they can come to you because they know you will listen.”

5: Make meals fun.
Since mealtimes are often when most families gather, make that time an enjoyable one. Draw out your kids by hiding questions under each plate. Or have each family member write out a question, suggests Coombs. “Everyone feels more talkative when there’s food involved,” Coombs says. “Sharing in the preparation of the meal is also a good time to talk.”

6: Consider instituting family meetings.
To create an environment where conversation is encouraged, schedule times several days a week to get together and share your thoughts as a family. “This becomes part of the family ritual and encourages conversation and sharing,” says Richard Horowitz, a parenting coach and author of Family Centered Parenting.

And to keep things going, avoid asking open-ended questions. “Instead of asking, ‘How was your day?’, which often leads to one-word answers, ask, ‘What was the best thing and worst thing that happened in school today?’” Horowitz suggests. “And always respond with non-judgmental comments.”

Photo: Corbis Images

Perfect Post-Holiday Brunch Ideas

A family brunch is a great opportunity to relax together after the excitement of opening gifts. Best of all, you don’t have to spend a lot of time to make delicious (and healthy!) mid-morning treats. These two recipes that will have you out of the kitchen and at the table in no time!

FESTIVE ZUCCHINI MUFFINS
Makes 12 muffins

2½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup canola oil
1¼ cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini (use the large holes on a box grater)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a standard-size muffin tin with a bit of canola oil, or use muffin cups.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and cinnamon. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, canola oil, sugar and vanilla.

3. Add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture and stir until almost incorporated. Add the zucchini and mix until the ingredients are just combined. Do not overmix, or the muffins will be tough.

4. Transfer the batter to the muffin cups and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan for five minutes and then transfer to a cooling rack.


 

Merry Berry Salad
Makes 4 cups

1 pint strawberries (fresh or frozen and thawed), halved or quartered into bite-size pieces
6 oz. raspberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
½ pint blueberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped mint or basil (optional)

1. In a large bowl, gently toss together the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, sugar and mint or basil if desired. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to 2 hours before serving.

Photo: Corbis Images