Things I Love: No-Gag Cottage Cheese!

While I have long understood the nutritional benefits of cottage cheese, the texture of it has proven to be an insurmountable hurdle. No matter how hard I tried, or what brands and types I tried, I just couldn’t make myself choke down those little curdy things.

Specifically, I think it’s the combination of liquid and curd that turns me off cottage cheese. Texture fail.

If you’re anywhere near the same, and many of you are, I suspect you’re sitting there thinking “braaaack” and getting ready to close this browser window.

But don’t. Just hear me out. Because cottage cheese salvation has arrived in our grocery store dairy cases.

Smooth, silky, sumptuous... despite being cottage cheese!

Smooth, silky, sumptuous… despite being cottage cheese!

This summer, Gay Lea launched a new Nordica brand cottage cheese, called Nordica Smooth. Currently available in Salted Caramel and Vanilla Bean flavours, it’s being sold in four packs.

I heard about the product over a lunch meeting. Within one day, I had picked a pack up to try. I was cautiously optimistic that this might be my cottage cheese solution. Indeed, it is.

Flavourwise, I started with the salted caramel, as I’m pretty picky on vanilla flavouring stuff in general (it can be good, but it can also be sooooo bad!).

It’s sweet, but also a touch salty, as you’d find in “traditional” cottage cheese. Smooth? Hell yes. In fact, it’s downright silky. Think of a light cheesecake, or a deliciously smooth and thick greek yogurt. Now you can have that same experience with cottage cheese, aka minus the lumps!

I hoovered my four pack pretty quickly.

At 110 calories per serving, packing 10g of protein, this is a snack with much potential! There are 12g of sugar per serving, which is comparable to — or slightly less than — the average flavoured greek yogurt.

While I’ll primarily eat this as a snack or to supplement a scant lunch, I’m also able to say with a straight face that it’d make a great dessert replacement if you, like me, fight your sweet tooth on a regular basis. Yes, I’m serious.

Here’s hoping Gay Lea will come up with an unflavoured (aka unsweetened version) and some other flavours soon, as well as larger containers. Even if they don’t, I’m sold — I’ll be buying these whenever I am in the dairy aisle and see Nordica Smooth in the cooler.

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Things I Love: Bean Ladies Roasted Soybeans

SoybeansThe quest to fuel the machine with healthy and tasty foods means an ongoing search for new snack options. This is particularly true during race season, when my morning snack of a banana needs supplementing with some lean protein so I don’t get unbearably hangry before lunchtime.

A product I’ve found recently – which is not exactly new on the market but is entirely new to me – is The Bean Ladies roasted soybeans.

Offered in both sweet and savoury flavours, these crunchy little nuggets make a nice snack at almost any time of day. They’re offered in chip-like flavours, including smoky bacon, salt & vinegar, dill pickle and all dressed; as well as in sweet flavours like apples & cinnamon, Canadian Maple, chocolate. There’s an extensive range of more varied “nouveau” flavours such as cracked pepper and lime, honey ginger & lime, sweet & salty, garlic, balsamic & sweet onion, chai latte and my perennial favourite, Sriracha.

PS: Though I haven’t tried them, I did note that The Bean Ladies are also offering a similar snack based on dried chickpeas.

A bag of soybeans costs about $6 and is, in my opinion, competitively priced. Given that quality protein bars cost between $2 and $3, even bought in bulk, it’s quite a bargain, actually.

With the highly coveted combination of high protein, moderate fat, and low-to-zero sugar content, I’m thrilled to have found these snack options! Soybeans make a nice alternative to nuts, and soy protein gives me a bit of a break from the whey protein that otherwise constitutes a huge percentage of my high daily macros in protein. If you want to see some nutritional values (sadly lacking from The Bean Ladies site), I found some here.

And even more importantly, these are tasty. While roasted soybeans can tend to be rather dry, I find these more palatable than most. My sister wouldn’t try them when I was visiting her a few weeks ago, but two of her kids did, and they agreed that these were great.

With the huge variety of flavours on offer, one would be hard pressed to get bored of the available options.

There are all kinds of warnings out there on the health scene that men shouldn’t eat soy protein, but I’m a believer in varying one’s protein sources. I’m confident that choosing soy protein a few times a week isn’t sacrificing my masculinity in any way. No, really.

Now if only my local shops could keep these beans in stock. Seems I’m not alone in my pleasure at having discovered The Bean Ladies offerings – the last two times I’ve checked, my local store was in danger of running out. Might be time to buy online!

Hydration: So simple, yet overlooked

It was Wednesday afternoon and the office water cooler had already run dry. Delivery of new bottles wouldn’t take place until Thursday morning. Our tap water periodically runs brown, usually smells bad and tastes worse – so we do require drinking water to come in from external sources.

The resulting showdown took place between a colleague and I, after someone had offered to pick up a large jug of water at the local store while she was out that way.

“It’s 2:30 in the afternoon,”, snapped my colleague. “You can’t seriously need more water before the day ends!”.

I gave her the blankest of looks, and  all our other co-workers all stepped back a meter or so, unable to stop watching, just like unwilling witnesses to a street brawl.

“Yes,” I said. “There are two hours left in the day, and some of us need water to function.”

In fact, all of us need water to function. It’s just that some of us are better at getting it.

My nickname at work and at the hockey rink is Doc. People are always asking me about sports injuries, nutrition, and related stuff. In truth, I don’t know how this started, since I don’t offer the info up unless it’s asked for, but I’m generally happy to oblige, always prefacing that this knowledge is really just based on personal experience and a lot of reading.

The simplest and most common advice I’ve given to people, and the one most often scoffed at until they’ve tried it, is that they need to drink more water.

It’s shocking how little water people are drinking. And it’s not even hard to spot the effects. Even without being thirsty, too many of us are walking around in a state of dehydration.

I had a colleague who without fail, would start yawning at his desk by mid-morning, and even worse mid-afternoon. He was drinking the sum total of one cup of water a day – usually after dinner, when he suddenly realized how thirsty he was. Once we chatted, he started a morning glass of water, a lunch glass of water, and an dinner glass. According to him, he felt clearer, and according to us, he wasn’t yawning all the time. When he would forget the morning water, we could all tell, because the yawning would return. It’s that clear.

Someone at hockey was pulling up short in almost every game for a months on end, with a groin muscle that kept pulling. I jokingly asked him once if he was hydrating enough, to which he laughed. And then I said “No, really, being dehydrated results in muscle cramps and pulls”, and he said “Oh?”. He’s now drinking more water before and during a game, and said last week he can’t remember the last time he got that strain. I believe. So does he, now. [Full disclosure: We also discussed that he skate around the ice to warm up a bit before doing better pre-game stretching. That helped too. Thanks, Doc!]

Want a clear head, healthy skin, a happy digestive tract, and some vigor? Drink more damn water.

I honestly see it as the simplest fix to a number of issues. As a juice, soda, coffee and tea drinking society, we aren’t getting enough water. People are so averse to water that entire product lines of artificially-flavoured, artificially-sweetened drops and powders are marketed to us to make our water palatable. Still, people don’t drink enough water.

A full glass of water with breakfast gives you the re-hydration you need after a night of sleep. It helps your body flush the toxins that have accumulated in your filtering organs. By mid-day, the body is prone to dehydrating again, and it manifests in false hunger, grogginess, and the yawns. Water can quench more than your thirst. Feeling hungry though you’ve really already eaten enough? Put down the chips and cookies, and down a glass of water.

Water, simply put, is the fix.

I’ll admit that I drink way more water than the average person, even one who’s properly hydrated. My body dehydrates quickly, so I tend to over-water. But water at my desk also keeps me from drinking yet another coffee, or from snacking when I shouldn’t. On non-workout days, I’m easily drinking 3 litres of water. On workout days, that can jump to over 4 litres. Road trips with the McKnapps involve intense calculations of how much water will be required for two humans and their over-sized canine. And even then, we tend to run out.

To this day, I remember when I started drinking more water. At 23, I had horrible post-lunch grogginess. Cloudy thinking, yawns, and feeling tired stopped when I started bringing a half litre of water with me to work, and drinking it. Just half a litre in a day, and I could feel the change. That was 18 years ago.

Now that I’m training for and racing in duathlons, as well as playing hockey, I can see markers of my hydration very clearly. In a recent race, I forgot that since the first run was longer than I was accustomed to in races, it would put me at risk of dehydrating. I ended up losing valuable time to a calf cramp on the bike portion, despite taking my usual fluids on board on the bike. That was a dumb mistake on my part, but luckily I had the right fluids on my bike to make it through. Valuable time lost on that one, and a valuable reminder that even the most basic of plans can need adjusting. Granted, this was about water with supplements added, but it illustrates the importance of hydration.

Even more recently, I’d had a day of not drinking as much water as usual. For whatever reason, I was likely a touch dehydrated when I went to hockey. Sure enough, I pulled a muscle — badly — just 30 minutes into my ice time, even though I had stretched well before the game. Coincidence? Maybe, but not likely. Again, an important reminder. Hydrating during the game was fine, but a bit late to save my hip flexor.

The short point to this post is that we all need to drink more water. Save the other stuff for extras – whether it’s juice, pop, coffee or sports drinks. Water first and foremost. So yeah, even at 2:30pm on a Wednesday, it’s worth bringing more water into the office.

Whatever the case for each person, it’s safe to say that there’s no huge risk in drinking more water, whereas there’s a lot to be lost for not doing so. Whether you are an athlete or not, good hydration is where good health begins.

Bottoms up!

Things I Love: Peanut Butter Re-defined!

I eat pretty healthy – let’s say that at least 85% of the time, what goes into my stomach is downright healthy. And I can safely say that my diet is well balanced. I know my macros, I know my metabolic requirements, and of course I know that what goes into this body is ultimately fuel for what it can do.

And certainly it is true that I watch my calories. I’m one of those people who puts on a pound of fat in a single weekend and then keeps it for weeks after – no matter how diligent the diet and exercise that follows.

But I can’t – and won’t – resist the allure of peanut butter. Whether in a classic sandwich, or as extra flavour for a smoothie or protein shake, or eaten off a spoon, peanut butter is a staple and a go-to energy booster for me (more later on the awesomeness of a peanut butter and Nutella energy bullet!). There’s nothing unhealthy about most peanut butter, if you can ignore the high sugar content in the regular (read: non-natural) stuff. I just can’t always spare the extra calories it adds. That’s why I was thrilled to discover this nifty little product!

Powdered peanut butter. Yes. It's true.

Powdered peanut butter. Yes. It’s true.

PB2 is a dehydrated Peanut Butter from Bell Plantation. There’s a plain version and a chocolate version, which I haven’t tried yet but clearly will [Because chocolate. And peanut butter. Together.].

To extoll on the marketing front, PB2 offers all the flavour and goodness of peanut butter, with about 85% less fat calories. Still adds a protein punch. And it has a titch less sugar than standard PB. As I’ve happily discovered, while it can take a few extra shakes of the cup or an extra three seconds of the blender whirring to blend smoothly, once it does, it adds a silky richness to the texture of my drink — making it more palatable.

I couldn’t bring peanut butter to work to shake with protein powder at my desk – eww, chunks. But I can add this stuff. With glorious results. One more change-up option in a world of nutrition that can get a little predictable over time.

We still keep jars of peanut butter around, but they’re now sharing shelf space with this wonder. Oh. So. Good.

Check it out when you get a chance at your local fine foods or health food store.

PS: If you camp, hike, or otherwise do activities where you carry your earthly belongings around on your back to subsist for a few days at a time, this stuff is gold. Add water as per directions, and you’ve got instant peanut butter at a mere fraction of the weight. I may not understand the compulsion to backpack, but I am a cyclist, so I get the trim-every-ounce-of-weight issue!

Taper Week: Not For The Weak-Minded

One of the difficulties I face as an age-group duathlete is that I’m trying to train and compete for the sake of the competition whilst also training and competing to lose weight. Unlike the über-lean classic triathletes and duathletes I line up with, I’ve got extra weight on my frame. Less than I had before, mind you, but at 5’8″ and 177 pounds, I’m easily a bag of dog food heavier than the elite athletes queuing up at the start line.

You might think training and weight loss go hand-in-hand – after all, an average week of training in the lead up to race season can include anywhere from six to nine hours of cardio and strength training, amounting to several thousand extra calories burned. And in fact I do enjoy having more leeway with calories when I’m training hard. Who doesn’t love the idea of being able to eat more without too much consequence?

But the reality is that there’s always a nagging voice in my head counting calories, exertion, and calculating whether I’m achieving a deficit or not. Even on a two-hour bike ride, when I have to eat an energy gel or chews mid-ride or risk not making it back, I feel guilty about the 100 calories taken in – even though I’ll easily burn that in ten minutes of riding.

Achieving a calorie deficit makes for weight loss, but it can also make for a miserable existence. When I train hard, I’m hungry. When I’m hungry, I easily get hangry. And while that’s cute on Betty White in a Snickers commercial, it’s not pleasant for my spouse, my coworkers, or anyone else around me. More importantly, it can also affect my performance. A hungry body can’t perform at its best. No fuel reserves in the tank, no power or endurance.

So each week, I struggle with the balance of fuelling appropriately while also trying to drop more pounds. For the most part, I can achieve this balance – after years of trying, I should hope I’ve got a fair handle on it [I admittedly have less of a handle on the cookie, pie and adult beverages front. That’s an ongoing battle.]

The true challenge, however, comes during taper weeks.

Tapering before a competition refers to the practice of reducing one’s training volume and intensity somewhat to ensure that the body is rested, healed, and ready for competition. For long course distances like a half- or full Ironman, or even a straight marathon, a taper can be as long as three weeks, though commonly, it will be two weeks. For my shorter efforts of Olympic (aka International) and Sprint duathlons, the window tends to be six or seven days. That’s a week of reduced output in order to prime the body for racing.

Taper week doesn’t involve sitting on one’s butt doing nothing, but it does entail a significant reduction in activity.

Last Saturday, I did a somewhat uncommon full race distance brick workout – running, biking, and running again at my next race distances (I really love doing bricks. More on that in another post down the road). It was an endurance session lasting about two hours. That’s my last hard workout until next Saturday, when I race. Everything between then and the race is shorter, less intense, or just not happening. So instead of over seven hours of working out this week, I’ll maybe get in four and a half hours. For anyone using fitness to maintain or reduce weight, this is understandably anxiety-inducing.

I feel anxious during taper week. I am sure I’m not ready to race. I feel like everyone else is out there training. I get blue, for no reason, except maybe a reduction in the usual post-workout endorphins. All classic taper emotions, according to everything I’ve read.

For a person used to working out all but one day of the week, the extra time not working out creates its own anxiety. Too much time to kill leads to time for doubting. And time not training feels like time wasted – I could be working on my speed, or my focus, or my cadence… as if the preceding weeks of obsessing on these details just don’t count. I should be trusting that I’ve established my base, but instead I’m invariably questioning it.

Unfortunately, in these last few days of light workouts and rest, I’ve also got to load up my glycogen stores with some extra carbs. So right when instinct tells me to eat less, because I’m working out less, I’ll be shoving my face full of quality carbohydrates. I don’t normally eat low carb by any means, but for hours 48 through 12 before a race, I switch things around so an extra quarter of my calories are coming from carbs. Right before I dress myself in a bunch of spandex and go stand next to those lean elite athletes.

And so, in the lead up to a race, the struggle goes from being physical to mental.