How To Calculate Nutritional Value For Any Recipe

Wondering about the nutritional value and/or calories of a favorite recipe? It’s one of my pet peeves about cookbooks and interesting recipes found online or in a newspaper or magazine – the recipes rarely list the calories and key nutritional info (like fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, etc) included per serving.

Well, wonder no more.

I’ve written multiple posts about the fabulous app, My Fitness Pal (I Heart My Fitness PalI Love Me Some Nutrition Graphs; and Better Than Salad at Wendy’s to name a few) but I just discovered an update to their site that enables you to quickly and easily – using copy/paste – import recipes and see their nutritional value.

The basic ability to input recipe ingredients and calculate the nutritional value – and save the recipe into My Fitness Pal so you can use it to track your calories/nutritional intake – is not new. But they’ve now made it far faster and easier by adding the ability to copy/paste recipe ingredients rather than enter each one manually. But wait, there’s more!  Their recipe importer stops the guesswork – for example, it automatically translated ’1 medium onion’ into 1/2 cup onion – an equivalency I always just guessed at before (um, even when cooking).

To me, this is miraculous. (OK, OK, I know, I need to ‘get a life.’)  But I heart technology, what can I say.

Now calculating the full nutritional value of any recipe is so, so simple.  Just login to your My Fitness Pal account on your PC or Mac, and under the ‘Food’ tab, click ‘Recipes.’  That brings up the Recipe Importer – importing from a URL didn’t work for me, but right underneath that, just click on ‘Add Recipe Manually.’  Then copy/paste your ingredients into the box, name the recipe, adjust the # of servings, and click the green ‘match ingredients’ button under the input box.  Either all your ingredients will either magically match – or if there are any issues, it’ll point them out for you to adjust manually.

Then save it and it appears in your ‘recipe box.’  To see the nutritional value, just click the recipe title in your recipe box and this is what appears (this is the nutritional value of my favorite homemade salad dressing: Mustard Vinaigrette):

Mustard Vinaigrette


I tried  out My Fitness Pal’s new copy/paste recipe importer for this 5 ingredient mustard vinaigrette and ALSO for a more complicated recipe.  I’ll write about that recipe, Risi E Bisi, separately – but the recipe importer worked beautifully for both a very simple recipe like this vinaigrette and a more typically complex dinner recipe.

So if you are ever in need of nutritional value of a meal at a fast food place OR a side dish you’re making or even a full recipe, check out My Fitness Pal.  My husband and I (and several friends) have found it a tremendously easy-to-use and very helpful way to pay attention to what you’re eating – for both calorie counting/losing weight and also for tracking cholesterol and fat (or any other nutritional value) of a recipe or meal out.

Note: I am in NO WAY associated with My Fitness Pal. Though LOL,  I think I need to contact them about putting an ad on my blog…

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Women Unaware of Heart Disease Risk

A recent study in Canada found that 75% of women did not understand that high cholesterol (and high blood pressure) are major symptoms of heart disease.  And about half didn’t know that smoking increases risk of heart disease.

How is this possible?


And if it’s true in Canada, I’ll bet it is true in the U.S. as well.

The study, by the University of Ottawa Heart Institute and published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology (CJC), reports results from “the first ever Canadian national survey of women that focuses on knowledge, perceptions, and lifestyle related to heart health.”  Surveyed were 1,654 women aged 25 and over across Canada in the spring of 2013.  

According to the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, the study, Perceived vs Actual Knowledge and Risk of Heart Disease in Women: Findings From a Canadian Survey on Heart Health Awareness, Attitudes, and Lifestyle, found “that a majority of Canadian women lack knowledge of heart disease symptoms and risk factors, and that a significant proportion is even unaware of their own risk status.”  

Specifically, the study shows women are woefully under-informed/mis-informed about cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk:

  • Smoking: only about 1/2 of women understood smoking to be a major a risk factor of heart disease.

  • High cholesterol and high blood pressure (hypertension): less than one-quarter of women surveyed understood these as symptoms of heart disease risk.

  • Doctors do NOT discuss heart disease risk with women, and need to: As reported on Medical News Today, most women in the survey said they preferred receiving information from their doctor, but just half reported that their doctor had discussed heart disease prevention and lifestyle with them.

  • Women feel they are less at risk than they truly are:  Medical News Today reported, “The survey also shows that women who are at the highest risk perceived themselves to be at a much lower risk. In a comparison of actual and perceived heart disease knowledge, 80% of women with a low knowledge score perceived that they were moderately or well informed.”
  • Women incorrectly – and dangerously – believe a cardiac event is a one-time event when it’s really CVD (cardiovascular disease) and needs ongoing treatment. Medical News Today goes on to say, “Additionally, 35% of women with CVD viewed their event as only an episode that has now been treated, after which they resumed their pre-diagnosis lifestyle “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” phenomenon.”

Admirably, “the University of Ottawa Heart Institute will be launching the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre this fall (of 2014) to address the disparities in diagnosis, treatment and ongoing care for women with heart disease.”

I wish we’d do the same in the U.S.

Just so we are all quite clear, the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute explains key heart disease risk factors on their What Are Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factors? webpage.  There are two types of risk factors: risks you cannot control and risks that are controllable with lifestyle, diet and, if necessary, medication.

Heart disease risk factors you can’t control (but should be discussed with your doctor) include age, gender, and family history of heart disease.

Risk factors that are controllable with lifestyle, diet and, if necessary, medication include:

  • High blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes and prediabetes
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Smoking
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Stress

Please know the heart disease risk factors in general.  And more specifically, you can actually see your predicted heart disease risk!  As many know (and I’ve reported about), in late 2013 the US guidelines for treating cholesterol were changed – and they now include an assessment of heart disease risk.  There is a FREE online calculator which assesses your heart disease risk. Read more about it on my blog posts:

Knowledge is power.  Use it to lower your heart disease risk.

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Aetna is killing my cholesterol

If stress increases cholesterol (and it does) then Aetna is killing me. And others, too. Seriously.

Back in December 2013 we switched our healthcare plan to Aetna: we are self-insured, health insurance is a huge ticket item for us, and Obamacare changed a lot about insurance so we needed to make a change. We did a lot of research and after much deliberation and analysis, we chose a non-Obamacare Aetna program. One that had been up and running for years. One that should work just fine no matter what.

This program came highly recommended from my insurance broker.  Aetna is a huge company. Most of my doctors accept the plan. All should have been fine.

So what’s the problem?

Aetna’s billing system is so incredibly screwed up that they have cancelled my plan TWICE (!!) for non-payment even though I’m fully paid up.  And I know that I am not alone in this: my insurance broker is mortified and told me I’m not the only one with this problem.

Aetna has a billing systems issue that is seriously flawed. And it’s causing me huge stress, which, in turn, is very likely increasing my already-too-high LDL (bad) cholesterol. According to Dr. Lisa Matzer, in an Everyday Health article entitled, How Does Stress Contribute To Cholesterol:

“The more anger and hostility that stress produces in you, the higher (and worse) your LDL and triglyceride levels tend to be.”

Let me tell you:  it’s wildly stressful to find out your insurance has been erroneously cancelled – and then have it take HOURS over several DAYS to get it reinstated. And then have them cancel it AGAIN 2 months later.  Let’s just say, anger and hostility abound, which Dr. Matzer says raises bad cholesterol.

I have tried to get Aetna to fix my bill for seven — SEVEN — consecutive months. I have had to call each and every month. I’m assured it’s fixed.  Then it’s not. Then they cancel me even though I’m fully paid up.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so stressful.

The first time Aetna cancelled me was in May.  May 14, 2014 to be exact. There was NO warning.  No phone call. No letter. No email. Nothing. I found out at CVS. I was trying to fill a prescription and the pharmacy tech told me my insurance was cancelled. For non-payment (BTW, my account was on AUTO-BILL to my credit card which was totally valid, LOL.)  Though it was seriously not funny.  We were days away from our bike trip to Croatia. Imagine if I’d had to spend the several hours over several days while in Croatia unraveling Aetna’s mistake (theirs, not mine) that led to them erroneously canceling my policy? Or worse, imagine if we’d gotten sick in Croatia and tried to explain that our health insurance really wasn’t cancelled?

But I was lucky. I found out about Aetna’s mistake before we left the country. So fix it we did, after many, many, many hours on the phone.

Turns out my credit card wasn’t being charged even though it was set up to be auto-billed to a valid credit card. The reason: Aetna’s flawed system didn’t hit my credit card with a charge – no invoice was being generated on their end because of a problem with how my husband’s part of the bill was created way back in December.

They promised it would be fixed.  But just to be sure, since auto-bill to credit card didn’t work, we switched to paper invoices.

Which I have NEVER ONCE received. Not one invoice in the mail, ever. And it’s not a U.S. Mail problem: post facto, I receive via U.S. mail both a cancellation notice AND a reinstatement notice (amusingly, I get them the same day).  And my address is correct.

It’s not a mailing problem. It’s an Aetna billing system problem.  The Aetna system shows they are creating/mailing a bill – but they do not.  So now, since both auto-pay AND U.S. Mail do not work to deliver an invoice, now I am forced to call at the beginning of each month to pay my monthly premium.

Because at least I am reliable. I enter it in my calendar and call. In fact, on June 3 at roughly 9:00 am I called Aetna to pay my June invoice (as usual, no mailed statement and the online invoice was wrong).  The customer service rep agreed with what I know I owed and I paid that amount on the phone. She then confirmed my payments were all current through June.

Then incredibly, at 2:33 that same afternoon, I got a phone message stating that my May payment (May!) was past-due and I was at risk of being cancelled.

THE SAME DAY I paid June and was confirmed that I was current through June, Aetna calls to tell me I am going to be cancelled.

At least this time they called.

Naturally, I called Aetna. A-freaking-gain I had to call Aetna to work things out. The rep said not to worry about that call about cancellation. She said she could see I was paid up – that both May and June were paid.  She confirmed I was current through JUNE and assured me they would not cancel me.

Then they cancelled me.

This is nearly fraud. I’m paying close to $1000/month and I am fully paid up and Aetna keeps canceling my policy.

It’s incredibly stressful.  I have spent HOURS, literally, on the phone.  I’ve been nice.  I’ve yelled.  I’ve asked to talk to a billing supervisor – to talk to any supervisor.  The supervisors can never come to the phone.  Two times the rep said they’d have a billing supervisor call me. We reviewed my phone number.  They promised the supervisor would call.  They do not. Ever. Call.

I have names and ID numbers galore of the customer service reps who promise they’ve escalated this issue. That it should have been fixed months ago.  That it will be fixed for the next invoice.



I know what the problem is.  An Aetna rep explained it to me back in January and I’ve explained to the Aetna reps I talk to every month.  It all traces back to the very beginning and that their system is not generating an invoice.  They agree that’s the problem.

They just can’t freaking fix it.

Aetna Incorrect Bill Screencap_0001Today, I confirmed once again with Aetna that I’m paid through July.  I asked, nicely, then why is my billing statement online STILL wrong. Why does it show that I owe $194o … and why does it show that I’ve been cancelled (circled on screen cap here.) And why can’t this be fixed? That I’d like to wait on the phone while it’s fixed.  Or get a call back that it is fixed.

This latest person – actually, I spoke with her  back in May also – tried to get a supervisor on the line and talked to billing and also to member benefits. She tried to help solve this vexing issue that has plagued me for 7 months now.  To no avail. Even after a 1 hour and 16 minute phone call (I timed it) to ensure I won’t be cancelled again, my bill is still wrong and I fear Aetna will cancel me. Though she assures me I won’t be cancelled again.

She was nice. She tried hard. But I don’t believe her. I just know that Aetna is going to cancel me for a third time because the problem clearly still exists.  The proof is right there, in that screen cap that shows I owe $1940 even though Aetna billing people and customer service people confirm I owe $0.

This has been seriously stressful – which is not good for my cholesterol.  Sure, there are many many more serious things that could happen to a person. But I have to say, this ranks up there.

Not only that, it’s reprehensible on the part of Aetna. I’m highly educated and have the time to spend hours with Aetna.  What about others who don’t have that luxury?

And what about the fact that this is likely raising my already high LDL (bad) cholesterol.

I’m tired of calling every month. I’ve tried to work within the system to get this fixed, and it hasn’t worked.  So now I’m ranting about how this is raising my cholesterol (sorry to my readers if this has been dull; but the message is that stress is bad for cholesterol, and you should try to reduce stress any way you can – for me, it’s been venting. Sorry, I’ll be back to more typical cholesterol topics next week!)

Mark Bertolini (@mtbert) according to your twitter profile, you “tweet about my work and my life experiences in health care.”  So I’m posting and tweeting and facebooking you about mine, sir.  Your organization has a serious billing issue. Please get someone at Aetna to stop canceling me when I’m fully paid up — and also fix my bill.  Please.


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Healthy Homemade Chicken Tacos

With summer grilling, it seems easier to eat healthily – especially if you are not the person in charge of the grill! But barbecued fish or chicken night after night can get old… and no one wants to roast vegetables in the oven when it’s 80 degrees.

When I’m tired of grilled dinners and am hankering for a fresh, spicy flavor profile that’s perfect for summer, I turn to my friend Sylvia’s fabulous, healthy homemade chicken tacos.

My friend Sly is from San Diego and growing up, her mother would frequently make what Sly calls a ‘fresh sauce’ and serve it for lunch or afternoon snack atop chicken tacos. Sly made it for me when we were in business school, and I was immediately hooked. At the time, I didn’t know much about cooking and had never considered making a salsa (which is essentially what Sly’s mother’s ‘fresh sauce’ is) from scratch.  Not only is it easy to make and out of this world delicious – Sly’s fresh sauce served on top of just about any healthy protein makes an incredibly healthy dinner.

The fresh flavor of this simple ‘fresh sauce’ is so bright that it just feels like summer. I should make these healthy tacos all year round, but every winter, I forget all about them until I plant my cilantro in the spring.  Then I get happy just thinking about them.

While this dish is incredibly easy to make, it does take a decent amount of time to prepare because there’s a lot of slicing and dicing.  This, actually, is why I probably stop making it once summer is over – because while some love the chopping part of cooking, it’s the part I like least.  That said, even if you’re like me and wielding the chef’s knife is not your favorite thing, these are well worth the effort.

And this dish is incredibly healthy because the ingredients are healthy: just tomatoes, onion, a jalapeño pepper, cilantro, tortillas and chicken – and a dollop of reduced fat sour cream.

To make, all you do is make the ‘fresh sauce,’ warm up a tortilla, put a dollop of sour cream on the tortilla, load the center of the tortilla with cut-up chicken (warmed or cold) and add about 2 tablespoons of the delightful, fresh (and spicy) ‘fresh sauce.’  Roll it up and devour.  Then repeat.

Plus, if you don’t finish off all the ingredients, the sauce saves well for 1-2 days so it’s a great, healthy lunch the next day.

Here’s the recipe for Chicken Tacos Going LoCo Style (thank you Sylvia!).  It should make about 10-12 tacos, enough certainly for 4 people.

A few quick things to note about this recipe:

  • This ‘fresh sauce’ is SPICY – and this from someone who likes vindaloo!  But try it as is, with one jalapeño pepper because when you use this sauce in the taco, it’s the perfect amount of spice, IMHO.  But fair warning: if you try the sauce or dip it with a chip, it’ll be pretty spicy…just letting you know.
  • Personally, I do not like raw onions in salsa (or anything, actually).  But the onions do not taste raw here – maybe because the tomatoes are ‘cooked’ first? I don’t know why, but it just works, even if you do not care for raw onion.
  • Give yourself about 1 hour to make this dish because cutting up a whole chicken and dicing the onion, jalapeño and cilantro takes time.
  • When Sly or her mom makes this, they actually blacken the jalapeño pepper on an open flame – but I find that a bit intimidating, so instead I microwave it as per the directions, but if you like charring peppers on an open flame, have at it!

I made this for dinner last night, and can’t wait to have it again for lunch. Give this recipe a spin for a tasty, healthy, spicy dinner option.

P.S. to Sly and her mom: I can’t remember if your recipe included the sour cream or if that’s my anglicized version of it – apologies if I’ve inadvertently modified your recipe and didn’t mention that (gosh, it’s been a long time since business school – I had a laugh at the date of the recipe, way back in the 1990s!)

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Harvesting Container Herbs

I’ve found over the years that I’m more motivated to cook a healthy home-cooked, low-cholesterol dinner when I have fresh herbs on hand. So, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day every year, we go out and purchase a dozen or so herbs and plant them in three large containers we keep on our deck.

While a garden would be great, we have too many deer and rabbits and other critters to make that possible. Oh, who am I kidding. I’m from the Bronx…and am so very NOT outdoor girl. Frankly, the thought of gardening in an actual garden makes me sweat.  (And not because it’s hot. Gardening – for real – is a lot of work and I know absolutely nothing about it.  And that is probably as it should be.)

Though it is fun to visit my friend Chris’s amazing garden.  And she’s very generous with her bounty, so that’s fantastic.

Herbs_June2014But truly, I do find that I cook more – and more healthily – if I have fresh herbs at hand all summer long. Hence, three huge pots on our deck. And one big problem.  I know how to plant them…and water them (which is pretty much never…thus my success.)  But I do not understand how to harvest each one properly – and some, not at all.

Sure, I go out there with my scissors and cut chives- that’s pretty self-explanatory. But every summer I wonder if I’m supposed to cut the woody part of the rosemary.  Or how to tame the oregano that tries to take over.

And the arugula, well, I have no idea. I’ve tried just cutting a few leaves. I’ve tried cutting it to the soil.  No matter what I do, I can’t seem to figure out how to harvest that arugula before it flowers and turns bitter.

I decided to give up on arugula, but then had an idea.

I could, um, try to learn how to clip arugula … and rosemary… and all my other herbs.

Amazing concept, right?

In just an hour or so on the internet, I learned a lot. (Anyone who is a gardener and can supply more insight, please comment!)

The best resource I found online was from a site called, Gardener’s World. In their aptly titled article, How To Pick Herbs (!), here’s what I learned overall and about four of my favorite herbs:

Overall – the idea is to clip early and often! And don’t let parsley chives or basil go to seed (oops, I need to get rid of the chives I was so happy made it through the winter outside!)

“Culinary herbs are the original cut-and-come-again crop, so if you’ve got them in the garden, don’t be afraid to get snipping and picking. The plants really will benefit from it, and you’ll have wonderful flavours to add to dishes. Most herbs and leafy plants naturally want to create seeds, and once they get to that stage, it means the end of a herb like parsley, chives or basil. So pick leaves early and often to encourage the plant to put out more foliage and prevent it from running to seed. It may be cheating Nature but it extends the life of your plants and gives you handfuls of herbs to enjoy.”

  • PARSLEY. “When cutting parsley, always remove the whole leaf, together with the leaf stalk, nipping it back to where it joins the clump. Avoid the oldest leaves as these tend to be tough.”  This was total news to me – I used to just cut the leaves…and let it flower.
  • CHIVES. “Chives grow quickly in spring and summer. Cut as you need them for use, trimming right down to the base. Keep four or five pots at the ready, so you always have some at different stages to harvest.”  For me, never going to happen, so I’ll just keep cutting my one chive plant down – that should keep me in pasta heaven all summer.
  • ROSEMARY.  “Cutting rosemary for culinary use will prevent the plant from becoming woody. Use secateurs (???) to trim 10cm – 15cm from each shoot, as required. Avoid cutting back into woody, leafless branches.”  LOL: secateurs are British for pruning clippers. Which, um, I don’t even own.  So I’ll be using scissors.
  • BASIL.  “When harvesting basil, nip out with scissors or between finger and thumb, the tips of the plants back to just above a pair of leaves. New growth will emerge at this point. Don’t nip just below the leaf, leaving a short stem, as this will simply wither.”  I had to read this about 5 times before I realized it said, simply, to make a cut ABOVE where 2 leaves join, not below.  

But it didn’t help me with my all-time favorite herb, cilantro. From a site called, I learned How To Harvest Cilantro.  Essentially, you have to clip some EVERY WEEK or it will ‘bolt’ which apparently means go to seed. And you clip off the top 1/3 or so – don’t clip down to the soil. I was doing NONE of this in prior years, so am happy to give this a whirl.

Last but not least is arugula.  And sadly, it seems clear from my research that I need to give up on arugula, because you have to plant it over and over again to keep it going all summer long, and frankly, I have the patience of a gnat. That said, I had already bought 2 plants, so I’m going to try what I learned from’s How To Grow Arugula:

To harvest Arugula, pick off the outside tender leaves at the base of the plant. Leave the center growing point intact for future harvesting. Discard larger leaves as they tend to get tough and very bitter tasting. Leaves can also taste bitter in warmer weather. Eat fresh or cooked like spinach.”

Lastly, regarding oregano, it seems that it’s just bound to take over, so I’ll just let it.

I’m looking forward to a summer of herbs inspiring healthy home cooking.

Recipes anyone?

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Spinning to Cardio Fitness

Daily exercise is a key part of lowering cholesterol without medication, and in the long, cold winter months, my exercise of choice is tennis (and my real exercise is spin class.)

For those who’ve not tried it yet, spin class is an amazing cardiovascular workout.  Some shy away because they’ve heard it’s intense…and it can be. But it doesn’t have to be – if you’re curious, drop by your local gym or spin studio and try a class.  First class is often free and - like yoga – it’s best at least at first to go at your own pace and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. If you get hooked, like I did, you’ll find it’s a fun class that you can adjust as your fitness level improves – and believe me, after just 2-3 weeks of spin, you’ll be amazed at the change in your cardio fitness. (For more info about spinning, check out the explanation at the fun place I get to spin: Joyride.)

Why am I talking about spin class?  Well, I use spin class for straight-up cardio workouts all year long AND also to train for the Backroads bike trips we go on every two years.

When I’m not ‘training’ for an upcoming vacation (I know, I know, oxymoron to some – but for us, it’s really a blast) I spin – at most – just once or twice a week, and play tennis the rest of the time.  But one of the side benefits of these biking vacations is that you MUST get in shape or you won’t have fun – and that sends me to spin class about 3 times a week for the 3 months leading up to the trip.

Hence my two most recent posts about heart rate – where I could literally see my cardio improvement (and the reason for lapse in posting – first a technical issue with my site, then iffy wifi in Croatia.)

So spin got me in great cardio shape – but what it failed to do this time is to prepare me for the long, long hills we had to climb in Croatia.

Which is odd, because I’ve never had this problem before.  For our other bike trips, spin got me in great cardio AND hill-ready biking shape. Well, mostly – there was still that long, long walk-of-the-bike to the top of San Gimignano in Tuscany…but that was our very first trip 10 years ago and we had NO IDEA the level of hills we had signed up for!

My guess is this time, I didn’t amp up the resistance enough during class, though I thought I did.  OR it was that I didn’t do enough training with huge resistance on a SEATED climb, which his what most of the Backroads hills are – you are tackling a 5-7 kilometer hill and that’s far too long to stand on the bike – at least it is for me.

IMG_4916So this is me, next to the van that boosted me up a 7k hill that I chose not to ride (but the downhill part was a BLAST).  Truth be told, I didn’t boost up ALL the hills on this trip (and I’ve almost never boosted up a hill on other trips).  But the nature of this particular trip was you had to get to certain locations by certain times so you wouldn’t miss the boat that took you to the next island’s biking. So we took the van up certain (huge) hills so we could ride more of the route - and still make the boat.

I must say, I didn’t love taking the van up several hills. I’m, um, so intensely competitive that it was hard to convince myself that we were making a good CHOICE, not that we were failing. But that said, I need to do a little more research into how to use spin class to train for hills for our next trip. (Because I don’t feel safe biking where I live – crazy drivers.)

IMG_4989Luckily, I’ve got 2 years to work this out. And I really want to because where else but a Backroads trip can you see signs like this? All week we saw these crazy signs (but luckily we didn’t see the wild boar it warned of – though we did have a near run-in with a passel of sheep).


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What’s Your Recovery Heart Rate?

Charts and tables explaining how to calculate a target heart rate for exercise abound. In fact there’s so much information it can be downright confusing (hence my blog post, How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal.)

But there’s very little information about another interesting heart rate goal: Recovery Heart Rate.

Which is unfortunate because it’s a pretty useful measure.  Lots of people have trouble starting and staying with an exercise program, and Recovery Heart Rate actually shows your progress – which could be very motivating.  In their online article, What You Should Know About Your Heart Rate or Pulse, explains, “One way to determine if you are reaping the benefits from exercise is to calculate your Recovery Heart Rate, a measure of how quickly you return to your resting heart rate after a workout.”

And it’s easy to do.  The article goes on to explain that to calculate recovery heart rate, follow these steps: 

1. Take your pulse ten seconds immediately after you have finished exercising. Write down the number.

2. One minute later, take your pulse again and write it down.

3. Subtract the number for the second pulse check from the number for the first pulse check. This number is your Recovery Heart Rate. The greater the number, the better shape you are in!

Simple, right?

Yes.  Except for the fact that in some articles, the directions are to take your pulse/note heart rate on your heart rate monitor 1 minute post exercising, while other articles say 2 minutes.


I don’t love that ambiguity.  But I can deal with it because there’s a bigger problem, IMHO.  For me, the larger issue is that I… um… want a goal.  I want to know how much my heart rate SHOULD go down (after 1 minute….and/or 2 minutes) to indicate that I am: a) pretty fit, and  b) getting fitter with increased exercise.

I don’t feel like that’s a lot to ask.  And yet, it is.  Because nowhere could I find a target.

What I did find is a study the American Heart Association published in 2001 that showed that if your recovery heart rate is <=18 beats lower than it was when exercising, that is indicative of poor heart health (and, um, predictive of higher death rate. Not kidding.)

Then I read Heart Rate Recovery Can Be Improved with Exercise from The Cleveland Clinic, which said after 2 minutes, heart rate must go down at least 12 beats per minute to be in good heart health.

Um – those don’t jive.

The conclusion: if you have cardiac issues, your cardiologist will know what to do about this 18 beats after 1 minute vs 12 beats after 2 minutes conundrum.  If your Recovery Heart Rate after 1 or 2 minutes is in the 12-18 beat range, you should probably check in with a cardiologist.

Which brings me to the other end of the spectrum.  The question I’m wondering about is this: if you are already exercising to keep your cholesterol in check, how can you use Heart Rate Recovery to gauge progress?

On a site called EnduranceCorner, Dr. Larry Cresswell states that a drop in heart rate of 15-20 beats per minute is ‘normal’  (and less than 12 would be ‘unfavorable.’)  And WebMD’s Researchers Find Heart Rate Worth a Thousand Words also posits that a ‘normal’ heart rate recovery is a decrease in beats of 15-25 beats after one minute.

Absent any other way to set a goal, I’ve decided to set my own personal goal of a drop of at least 25  beats, 1 minute after stopping after exercising at my maximum heart rate level.  It’s really easy to do this in a spin class - I try to ramp my heart rate up to my (personal) max of 154-ish during a song… then after that song ends, I note the time and heart rate on my heart rate monitor, then sit and pedal slowly (and gulp water) and watch my heart rate after 30 seconds and 1 minute.

The thirty seconds part I just made up.  It just keeps me occupied.  Interestingly, my heart rate remains kind of near the max even after 30 seconds.  But this week – after several weeks of intense spin training for my upcoming European bike trip (!) – I noticed that  my resting heart rate after 1 minute was consistently 30 beats less than maximum.  And that’s a pretty big improvement vs the typical 20-25 it had been when I was spinning just once a week.

Now that’s the kind of progress I need to keep spinning twice or three times a week.

That, and the fact that in just a few weeks, I’ll be spending 5 days in a row riding up the rolling hills of Croatia!

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Outrageously Delicious Meatballs with Spiced Tomato Sauce

I don’t do meatballs.  Don’t like to eat them.  Don’t ever, ever, ever make them (plunking my hands into a bowl full of cold raw meat is, well, do I really need to elaborate?)

Color me not-meatball girl.

Which is why it was so surprising that I found (and actually tried!) a recipe for what turned out to be outrageously delicious meatballs.

Sam Sifton’s recent New York Times article, Comfort Food Grows Up, was so interesting that I decided to actually make homemade his turkey meatballs.  I’m not sure if what grabbed me was the description: “vaguely North African tomato sauce zipped up with orange juice and warm spices, then toped with feta and mint.”  Or that Mr. Sifton said his kids beg him to make these meatballs. Or the promise of a short cook time: “you can cook it in an hour’s time, not all of it spent working.” (Which, by the way, was a BIG FAT LIE – unless, I guess, you’re a professional/near-professional chef.)

Probably all three (aren’t you intrigued now too?)  Check out the article: the recipe is from a chef called Suzanne Goin – it’s a dish she’s served at her LA restaurant A.O.C. and modified for the menu of a West Hollywood charter school’s “Edible Schoolyard” program.

TurkeyMeatballSpicedTomSauce_TrayIn any case, I made a tray of 20 of these turkey meatballs. Though not pretty – this is not a fancy-dinner-party dish — this tray of meatballs was, without a doubt, the absolute best dish I have ever made.  Ever.

I wasn’t going to make the sauce – but you must.  As you can see in this photo, the meatballs, after you sear them in a broiler (or stovetop) bake in the sauce — and it’s the sauce, I think, that really makes this dish. Don’t use jar sauce (and this from someone who always uses jar sauce).  Make this sauce – it’s easy to make — and the cumin, cinnamon, orange juice and zest make it both unusual and insanely delicious.

TurkeyMeatballSpicedTomSauce_ServedAs the article (but not the recipe!) suggests, I served them over pasta ‘slicked with olive oil’ the night I made them.  For leftovers, I then ate these meatballs over the pasta every meal thereafter. For four days in a row. Michael chose to vary things up for each leftover meal: twice he had these on a bulkie roll and twice he enjoyed them warmed up next to a side salad. FYI: the recipe says you can serve it with pita or bulgur or couscous.

Basically, these were so good you could serve them with just about anything.

Here’s s link to the recipe: Lamb Turkey Meatballs with Spiced Tomato Sauce.  A PDF version is on the Lo-Co recipe page.

And here are a few pointers, from my experience:

  • First and foremost, I can’t imagine how anyone other than a chef could prepare these in 1 hour. Allot at least 1 1/2 hours  – or 2 to be really safe.
  • To that end, I used already-diced onions to cut down prep (and cry) time. Though truth-be-told, I didn’t read the recipe closely enough – you need diced onion for both the meatballs and the sauce so make sure you buy enough!
  • For lowest cholesterol, I used turkey – and they were fabulous.  Am sure that lamb or turkey and pork combo as per the article would be equally fantastic.
  • Do follow Sam Sifton’s suggestion to run these under the broiler rather than searing on a stovetop – it’s far less mess/cleanup. I had also never once used a broiler (!) and it was easy.  That said, his directions weren’t clear about how long to cook in that broiler – it says 5-7 minutes, turning once or twice.  I turned them ONCE only, and did 6-7 minutes PER SIDE.
  •  I had trouble judging how big to make the meatballs, and ended up making them probably a bit bigger than his “a little larger than golf balls” (inane, IMHO) direction. Basically, I made them bigger so they’d fit in my Pyrex 9×12 baking dish!
  •  A 3 inch strip of orange peel was not easy – be sure you either have a tool for this (I could not find mine – nor can I remember it’s name!) or leave yourself time.
  • The feta cheese is vital – the mint not so much, IMHO.  OK, fine. I’ll fess up: I forgot to buy mint.  Didn’t matter – though if you love mint, am sure it’d be great.
  • I usually like a lot of sauce and was concerned this didn’t make a big vat of sauce.  No matter – atop pasta ‘slicked with olive oil’ and just a few tablespoons of sauce, it was plenty flavorful.

I plan to input this recipe into My Fitness Pal to find out it’s nutritional value, but even without that, give this one a whirl. You (and your family) will be glad you did.

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How To Set A SIMPLE Heart Rate Goal

I like to wear a heart rate monitor while spinning or jogging so I have confirmation for how things are going and can adjust my workout.  Some might call this OCD; I prefer to think of it as positive motivation. Wearing a heart rate monitor helps me figure out if I’m working too hard (almost never the problem) or if I can safely push a little more to get a great workout in as short a time as possible.

Plus it helps keep my mind off the actual exercise.

The trouble is, I have never been able to figure out what my actual target should be.

I’m pretty smart.  I have an MBA.  I like data.  But the information explaining how to calculate a personal target heart rate is laden with, well, far too much information.

HeartRate_Exercise_zonesIt starts out okay: the first step is a very simple formula to calculate Maximum Heart Rate (MHR, which is 220 minus your age). But then things get complicated. To figure out the target percentage you should apply to that MHR, you’re confronted with multi-colored charts with too-many zones labeled with too-many bizarre terms.

I don’t want to consider aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Or VO2 (and isn’t that a hair thing – oh, wait, that was VO5). How am I supposed to know if I want the ‘endurance zone’ or the ‘fat burning zone?’  Or, on the scary heart-rate chart specifically created for spinning, which of the five ‘energy zones’ are for which part of the class.

That’s all way too complicated.

I just want a simple 2-number, rough range of the heart rate I’m shooting for. A range that tells me at the low end what heart rate I need to stay at or above to ensure a great cardio workout, and at the high end tells me when I need to dial back to stay safe.

I’ve tried to calculate this several times.  Finally, I resolved to plow through all the charts and figure out a goal that’s right for me. After a lot of research, here’s the target heart rate I decided on for spin class.  I am going to shoot for 70-85% of my MHR.

The reason I chose a 70-85% target heart rate goal is most simply explained in The Heart Rate Debate article on the American College of Sports Medicine:

“For endurance training and general aerobic conditioning, calculate 50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate if you’re a beginner; 60 to 75 percent for intermediate level exercisers; and 70 to 85 percent for established aerobic exercisers. For example, if you’re a 45-year-old beginner with no known health issues, your maximum heart rate is approximately 175 beats a minute. Fifty to 65 percent of that maximum is 87 to 113 beats per minute; this is your starting point for cardiovascular activity.

For weight loss, use interval training to burn the most calories. Short bursts of high-intensity exercise (80 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate) followed by lower-intensity recovery periods (50 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate) burns more calories than exercising at a consistent level of exertion for the same amount of time.”

Using these parameters, you can easily set your target heart rate using the simple MHR.  Or if you are more exacting OCD like me, you can use the Karvonen Formula (which is more accurate as it takes into account resting heart rate). A very good online Karvonen Formula calculator is available on Brian Calkin’s site.

My personal target heart rate is 139-154 when using the Karvonen formula and an MHR of 170 (220-my age).  Happily, that fits with my spin experience. It feels like I’m working out at a good, strong pace when my heart rate is around 135, and it feels like I’m pushing too hard when I hit about 150.

Interestingly, my target heart rate using the simpler, non-Karvonen formula netted a range that felt too low to me. Simply applying the 70-85% of my MHR of 170 would be 119–145, and that 119 is not where I feel my exercise sweet spot lies. But the simple method might well work for others – for me, the Karvonen formula feels like a better fit.

Finally, I know what I’m shooting for.  You can too. Here’s how you can establish a simple exercise target heart rate that’s right for you:

  1. Calculate your MHR by subtracting your age from the number 220.
  2. Decide on your target heart rate percentage based on your level of fitness using the American College of Sports Medicine targets explained above. For example:
        1. Beginners should target 50-65% of MHR.
        2. Intermediate exercisers can go for 60-75%.
        3. And if you already exercise a good deal, shoot for 70-85% of MHR.
  3. Determine your specific target heart rate goal by simply multiplying these target percentages by your MHR – or by using the Karvonen method.

So now I’m set for spin… and if my achilles tendonitis ever heals (and if it ever warms up in Connecticut), I’ll apply that same heart rate target range to jogging.

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What’s In That Energy Bar?

Recently, I bonked after competing in a grueling (and yet fun! even though we lost!) USTA tennis match. I came home, flopped onto the sofa and realized I was both light headed and so tired I wasn’t sure I could get up.

But I had to get some food in me. Fast.

After carefully getting to my feet and slowly making my way to the kitchen island,  I gobbled several handfuls of M&Ms. OK, 10 handfuls. Then I took the M&Ms bag (it’s big and it lives on my kitchen island. Don’t judge me please) and a glass of water to the sofa.

It was several hours before I felt better.

And yes, I ate the entire bag of M&Ms.

What’s crazy about this situation (other than all that candy) is that I could easily have prevented bonking if I’d eaten during my match.  Like on changeovers – you’ve seen the pros do that on TV right? And I knew that.

In fact, I had a banana in my tennis bag.  TO PREVENT BONKING. And yet, I didn’t eat it. I was caught up in the competition and forgot to… oh who am I kidding? I don’t love fruit so I really didn’t want to eat that banana anyway. And I forgot to reload on my chocolate chip granola bars that usually live in my tennis bag, so ate nothing instead.

Given that I brought the banana and chose not to eat it, clearly I need a better non-bonking food strategy.  One of which is to ‘carbo-load’ before a match.

That got me thinking about the kinds of power bars or protein bars that I could try.

And that led to a surprising discovery: a lot of these so-called nutrition bars are nothing short of candy (including my chocolate chip granola bar of choice).

The horror!

And this, coming from the keeper of giant M&M bags on my kitchen island.

But it is horrifying. Because if I CHOOSE to eat M&Ms that’s one thing. But if I think I’m eating something nutritious (even vaguely so) and it turns out it’s pretty much junk, then that is, well, just plain wrong.

So here’s what I learned about nutrition bars in a nutshell (sorry for bad pun):

  • Some of them are high in fat – saturated fat, the kind to stay away from…
  • Some have a LOT of calories – like a whole meal’s worth of calories. Which could be useful if you were looking for meal replacement, but that’s never what I seek so…
  • Some actually have fiber, which is helpful with cholesterol management!

In a few articles and reviews I found of nutrition bars and protein bars online, here are some guidelines you can use while seeking the perfect bar for you:

  • Look for a low-fat bar: fewer than 5 grams of fat is a decent target. But 10 grams is probably OK if that’s the  bar that works best for you.
  • A bar low in sugar is obviously a good goal: shoot for 7 or so grams or fewer.
  • For a post-workout boost, Ericka Stachura, RD, a registered dietitian in Boston, explains in an article, “Serious athletes who want a post-workout recovery protein bar should look for bars with about 20 grams of protein.”
  • Why not get cholesterol-lowering fiber too? Some bars have up to 5 grams of fiber…
  • Make sure your choice has 150-200 calories, not 300-400+ calories – unless you prefer to take your meals in bar form.

The article, 9 Smart Protein-Bar Picks, is handy as it lists bars with a summary of their calories, protein, total carbs, total fat and sugar.

The Quest bar was mentioned in several articles. I’d never heard of it before and for good reason – I had to go to a GNC store (in a mall!) to buy them. But off to the mall I went because though pricey, these bars are a good choice, it seems.  They have about 200 calories, 20 grams of protein, 17 grams of dietary fiber and only 2 grams of sugar.

I bought three flavors: coconut cashew, white chocolate raspberry, and vanilla almond crunch.  All three sound better than a banana to me.

I’ll let you know if they keep me from bonking.

Another key piece of learning – some very popular energy bars are not so healthy. In several online articles, some of the very popular CLIF and LUNA bars fell into the ‘worst’ category vis-a-vis nutritional value.  That said, the Lemon Zest Luna Bar was in the ‘best’ in one article and ‘worst’ category in another – so it depends what you are looking for. Best to read about what’s in your favorite bar and decide if that works for you.

Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about protein bars or nutrition bars – including several ‘best and worst’ recommendations, check out some of these online articles:

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