What It’s Like To Do A 6-Week Self-Improvement Challenge

My mind has always been on-the-go. I’m the person who prefers to brainstorm ideas during a long walk, or who would rather dance through the house while on a phone call than sit in one spot.

From time to time I’d considered finding ways to practice mindfulness—which is the practice of being aware of the present moment—but I would always end up talking myself out of it. I’d download an app at the suggestion of a friend but wind up using it once and then forgetting about it.

After a couple of rough years dealing with a disability called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which is a grouping of disorders that affects the skin, joints, and blood vessels, I decided that I needed to give self-care a serious try. I was having a lot of symptoms and was open to anything that might provide relief.

I knew I needed to bridge the gap between how I wanted to feel about my body and how I actually felt. Because I wasn’t getting anywhere with mindfulness on my own, I signed up for a personal coaching program, which included weekly webinars, warm-up videos, workouts, cool downs, and meditations.

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self-improvement challenge: The Program

Each week, I dedicated 40 minutes to the webinars, which guided me deeply through numerous weekly themes, like mastering your subconscious mind, creating a healing mindset, ending self-sabotage, letting go of destructive relationships, and forgiveness. (You know, pretty light stuff.)

I also dedicated time to the workouts and meditations, committing to get outside in nature—free from modern-day distraction—and move my body at least once a day.

That first week, I admit that I felt a little silly sitting in front of my laptop, listening to the webinar. Would I really, actually feel transformed? But as I listened, closed my eyes, and felt the energy travel through my body, I knew: I’ve been hiding behind my own busyness. I haven’t been taking the time to work through my own emotions and listen to what they’re telling me. I’ve been unable to find true peace, especially when it comes to my disability or wellness, because I’ve been refusing to be vulnerable and raw about the situation, even with myself.

I realized, if I want to make authentic peace with my life and my body, I needed to really feel my feelings.

The webinars talked a lot about how we connect to ourselves (and to something deeper) when we move our bodies—not only at the gym, but also if we’re doing simple workouts in our own homes or getting outside in nature. I hadn’t been making as much time for these things in the last few years. Instead, I’d been keeping myself busy and not taking the time to honor my emotions.

How The Self-Improvement Challenge Changed Me

It’s become more and more difficult to stay totally present as I’ve gotten older, advanced in my career, taken on new responsibilities at work and at home, and dedicated myself to more passion projects. Not to mention social media! Being present in the moment is so important—even though it’s easy to lose sight of.

After doing the six-week coaching, I committed to incorporating some of it into my wellness regular practice. Now, every day after work, I take at least 30 minutes to be with myself and in nature, mostly through daily walks on the beach or in the park. On the weekends, I spend at least two hours a day doing this; sometimes with others, but at least once each weekend I do it alone. Walking on the sand, with the waves crashing next to me, I’m able to be in tune with what’s going on in my life and what I’ve been ignoring.

Related: Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

Mindfulness is about so much more than just sitting still. I’m finding that mindfulness works best for me when my body is physically moving (like during a slow walk break), but I still really need to be present in the moment. That’s the hardest work for me: not taking out my phone to scroll through Instagram while I’m in the grocery checkout line, paying attention to how my body feels when I’m running, and listening to my breathing when I’m alone at the park, looking up at the sky.

I realized throughout my six-week coaching program that I’d been actively avoiding being completely present in the moment for a while now, especially since my disability has caused more pain and fatigue in my body. I didn’t want to listen to what my body had to tell me or how I felt about it—I just wanted to escape it.

The other day, I was feeling a lot of pain. Instead of turning on the TV to drown it out, I laid down on my heating pad on my living room floor, closed my eyes, and visualized my life the way I want to live it. I visualized being a little closer to living pain-free, not feeling fatigued, and doing everything I can to respect my body’s needs, including accepting it as it is. I would have never tried this before my six-week coaching; it turns out opening your mind really can lead to calming your body and spirit.

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I Tried Pegan—The ‘World’s Healthiest Diet’—For 30 Days

I love testing the latest diet trends in order to figure out what works for me—and which crazes may actually stand the test of time. So when I read about the paleo-vegan, or pegan, diet—which not only seems impossible but also claims to be the healthiest diet out there—I figured I had to give it a shot.

Hold Up, What Is Pegan?

If you’re wondering how a pegan diet is even possible, you’re justified.

At first, I just didn’t comprehend how paleo and vegan could possibly fuse together. The paleo ‘caveman’ diet emphasizes lots of proteins like meat and fish, but vegans completely avoid animal products—even eggs!

Bear with me, though—the diet actually makes a lot more sense than you might think. The brainchild of Mark Hyman, M.D., founder of The Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and one of the most prominent functional medicine experts in the country, the pegan diet combines the best of the paleo and vegan philosophies.

First, you cut out dairy, processed foods, vegetable oils, and added sugar, and carefully limit grains, legumes, starches, and alcohol. Instead, you fill your plate with plants—mostly vegetables, some healthy fats, and a little fruit. You can have meat and eggs, but instead of making them the focal point of your meal, think of them more as condiments. (Hyman also recommends they’re organic and sustainably raised.)

Make sense? Here are the Spark Notes:

  • No dairy, processed foods, sugar, or gluten
  • 75 percent plant-based
  • Lower in carbs, higher in healthy fats
  • Limited use of quality animal proteins

Getting Started on Pegan

I’ve eaten mostly whole, unprocessed foods for years now, I felt confident that I could eat like Dr. Mark Hyman for a month without much issue and decided to put pegan to the test.

However, there were certainly a few non-pegan-friendly indulgences—like milk in my coffee—I groaned about having to give up. I also worried that cutting down on animal protein would leave me unsatisfied and hungry. Not to mention, I expected nixing most packaged foods would force me to spend more time grocery shopping and cooking than usual.

On day one, I walked into my kitchen pouting that I would have to put coconut milk in my coffee instead of the real stuff. However, after adding a few tablespoons straight from the can and taking a sip, I was very pleasantly surprised by the hint of coconut flavor and slight sweetness of my coffee!

Unsure how to make creative meals that also happened to be made up of at least 75 percent plants, though, my joy didn’t last. For the first few days, I ate pretty much nothing but salads. I visited the farmers’ market for fresh greens and swapped in different nuts and seeds, but grew bored quickly. I missed Greek yogurt with nuts and berries and took the loss of cheese—my favorite snack—pretty hard.

My overall protein and calorie intake had definitely taken a hit, and I felt generally hungry and unsatisfied.

On the verge of going salad mad on day three, I hopped onto Pinterest to search for inspiration and found plenty of fresh ideas, like egg salad made with cream avocado, homemade veggie burgers, and easy grill packets of protein and veggies. Finally excited, I hit the grocery store and stocked up on staples like veggies, burgers, eggs, tons of fresh fruits and veggies, and buckets of avocados and nuts.

Pegan Progress

Within just a few days of turning it all around, I woke up feeling lighter and more focused, and noticed less achiness in my joints. I think cutting out dairy really did the trick here. I had regularly used butter, milk, cheese, and yogurt, and my pegan experience was the first time I’d truly given them the boot.

To combat my initial hunger, I ramped up the healthy fats, drizzling everything with olive oil and adding avocado, nuts, or seeds to every meal I could.

After a week or so, I found a vegan protein shake recipe for breakfast that was a total game-changer.

The Perfect Pegan Morning Shake:

The combination of the fat in the almond butter, the fiber and nutrients in the berries and greens, and—of course—the protein, kept me well-fueled all morning long.

As I shifted my snacks away from cheese to veggies, I fell in love with flavored hummus from Hope Brand and Lantana, and paired it with jicama sticks or endive ‘chips.’ I also made lots of guacamole.

Yes, I did continue to eat salads often, but I started making my own dressings with fresh herbs (like basil and chives), lemon, garlic, and even Dijon mustard to keep things interesting.

The more creative I got with my meals, the more I enjoyed myself. I threw foil packets of shrimp and summer squash on the grill for quick meals and experimented with a dozen different varieties of cauliflower rice. As the weeks continued, just two ounces of grilled chicken became really satiating—and I couldn’t believe I used to eat six ounces at a time.

The Pegan Verdict

The weeks flew by, and suddenly I found myself a month into living the pegan life. And I felt really good. My stomach? Noticeably flatter. My skin? Bright and clear. My cravings for cheese—and even my desire to have a glass of wine—diminished. I also noticed I had a real clarity of mind and much more energy than usual.

I had always been intrigued by the idea of being vegetarian or vegan, but the seeming difficulty of the task always scared me off. Without feeling extreme, the pegan diet helped me realize that I could eat a delicious, satisfying diet that incorporated plenty of veggies without having to shun meat all together.

Thing is, though, I really didn’t miss eating a lot of meat after I cut back. In fact, I came to think I’d been overeating animal protein before going pegan. Without having to spend so much effort breaking down animal proteins all day, my body felt energized.

Related: 7 Tips For Doing A Plant-Based Diet Right

I also really enjoyed finding new plant-based snacks and yummy recipes. Sugar snap peas with hummus, macadamia nuts with baby carrots, and mini eggplant ‘pizzas’ have become go-to’s.

Oh, and did I mention I lost about six pounds without even trying in those 30 days? I couldn’t believe how different I looked after such a short period of time. But as great as the added perk of weight loss, was, how I felt remained the true prize.

Though I often return to my usual eating habits (hi, cheese) and staple recipes after completing different diet experiments, I’m going to continue eating pegan-style from here on out.

Liz Josefsberg is a weight loss and wellness expert with over 15 years in the industry, as well as a member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. A mom, author, fitness enthusiast, and weight loss success story herself (65 pounds lost!), Liz consults all over the world. She loves testing every diet, exercise regimen, device, and piece of gear she can get her hands on. 

 

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I Tested 10 Different Pump Supps In One Month—Here Are My Top Picks

I’ve been an avid lifter for over 10 years, and in that time I’ve tried just about every pre-workout supplement on the market—from high-stim energy drinks to caffeine-free nitric oxide-boosters.

When I started to lift in the evening after work a few years back, I cut back out caffeinated pre-workouts and fell head-over-heels for stim-free pump supplements. I mean, who doesn’t want jitter-free energy, focus, endurance, and—of course—veins that really pop?

Lately, I’ve just been taking free-form amino acids that have been shown to ramp up the body’s production of nitric oxide (the magical chemical that dilates blood vessels so you look swole and can lift until it’s time to hit the hay). My go-to concoction: three grams of l-arginine, 500 milligrams of agmatine sulfate, and four grams of l-citrulline, mixed with some flavored BCAA powder and water.

To minimize my pre-workout chemistry, I decided to test 10 of the most popular nitric oxide-boosting products, which combine pump-friendly ingredients like the ones I already love.

Post-Pump Verdict

After a long, thorough, and incredibly veiny experiment, I’ve got plenty to say about which products I loved—and which I didn’t. One thing I noticed right off the bat: The pill-form pump supplements just didn’t do it for me. While I noticed instant pump, energy, and endurance after slugging back the powdered supplements (or just chewing on the powders straight), I waited and waited for the pills to kick in.

If you want to crank out those extra reps and watch your muscles literally blow up in the weight room mirror, here are the powdered pump products that now hold a special place in my gym bag.

4th Place: PEScience High Volume

A combo of citrulline, arginine nitrate, and agmatine sulfate (my go-to’s!), High Volume’s formula immediately caught my attention.

I tried the Cotton Candy, which is arguably the most popular flavor (and will blow your mind if you have a sweet tooth). Though it was slightly grainy, the flavor knocked my socks off so much that I didn’t care.

The pump kicked in gradually and peaked about 20 minutes into my workout. Once it kicked in, that sweet nitric oxide boost lasted throughout my entire gym session.

3rd Place: MAN Sports Pump Powder

I have to say, I’m a huge fan of MAN Sports’ Sour Batch-flavored anything, and the Sour Batch Pump Powder did not disappoint. Like High Volume, this one didn’t mix as well some of the other pump supplements out there, but I’d take the ‘meh’ mixability for the taste (and results) any day.

Related: 3 Quick Ways To Level Up Your Pre-Workout

Pump Powder gets its power from agmatine sulfate, glycerol monstearate, and citrulline malate, and contains more of them than any of the other supplements I tested.

That higher dose definitely made a difference, and I felt an insane pump by the last set of my very first exercise. By my third exercise, the veins in my upper chest bulged—something I’m always working for.

At one point, I thought my arms (forearms, biceps, and triceps, all included) were literally going to pop. It was awesome. Seriously, my pump was so strong that I could barely finish some reps because my muscles were getting in the way.

2nd Place: BodyTech Nitrulline Powder

A big fan of BodyTech products (like the liquid Raspberry Carnipure L-Carnitine and Birthday Cake-flavored Whey Tech Pro 24), I had high expectations for their recently-launched Nitrulline Powder.

This pump supp is a muscle-friendly fiesta of l-citrulline, l-arginine HCL, taurine, glycerol, and l-norvaline. I loved that the watermelon flavor was nice and sour—not overly sweet.

My pumps kicked in during the second set of my first exercise (weighted dips). The horseshoe in my tricep was really poppin’, and I loved it. I held onto a solid pump throughout my workout and looked much more vascular than usual. It was like I had road maps of veins all over my arms!

After trying this just once, I was sold. Not only did I look and feel great, but I powered through my workout with intense focus. (I also wanted to pop another scoop in my shaker cup after the gym, just to savor that sweet-sour watermelon goodness.) A new favorite, for sure.

1st Place: iForce Nutrition Hemavol

If I could have only one supplement for the rest of my life, it would be Hemavol. I love the tanginess of the watermelon flavor, how perfectly the powder mixes into water, and the transparency of the ingredients label.

Agmatine sulfate and citrulline malate are the real all-stars here. Hemavol packs 500 milligrams of agmatine and 2,500 milligrams of cittruline malate, which is more than all over the other supps, except MAN Sports’ Pump Powder.

This product is no joke. After just one set of bicep curls, a tight pump filled my arms, and I was incredibly swole throughout every single exercise that followed. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I truly thought my arms were going to pop, and by the time I finished my workout, I could barely move them.

Maybe the mirrors were playing games with me, but I also looked way bigger than usual. The pump was REAL. And guess what? It lasted long after I left the gym.

To me, Hemavol is a 10 out of 10. Sign me up for auto-delivery now!

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Why Personal Training Is So Worth The Expense To Me

The summer before I started college, one of my closest friends and I got student memberships at a fancy new fitness center in town. Like most gym memberships, ours came with a complimentary personal training session, which we were told would be the speediest, most efficient way to hit our goals. Our goal, at the time, was plain and simple: lose weight. Both of us had been overweight since we were kids and tried all manner of dicey diet techniques. As young adults, we were ready to go the pragmatic route: regular fitness and counting calories!

But there’s only so much you’re going to get out of a one-hour, introductory pow-wow. The gym’s management obviously hoped we’d be so convinced of our need to work with our trainers that we would end up buying a full package. As penny-pinching 18-year-olds, though, there was simply no way we were dropping even a few hundred bucks on personal training—no matter how much weight we wanted to lose that summer. 

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We thanked the trainers and considered their suggestions, which mostly revolved around adding strength training to our routines. In the end, though, we opted to be one another’s workout buddy, holding each other accountable by heading to the gym together at least three times a week and hopping on side-by-side ellipticals.

I remember dialing the resistance on the machine to seven. Every. Single. Time. And we did 30 minutes. Every. Single. Time. Who needed weights? Who needed a trainer? We were getting to the gym! Three times a week! Better yet, according to the digital screens on our elliptical machines, we were burning 300 calories in 30 minutes. 

Surprise, surprise: Neither of us hit our goals that summer. Sure, we lost a couple of pounds. We felt a bit more energetic. We were also proud of ourselves. After all, getting regular physical activity was better than—well, nothing. That said, any fitness professional will tell you that the body adapts fairly rapidly to an exercise routine. Cross-training throughout the week and constantly challenging yourself is a must if you don’t want to plateau.

Back then, the idea of plateauing wasn’t something I understood—or even wanted to understand. I was juggling schoolwork and a social life while trying to eat healthfully and get enough sleep. I felt like it was enough that I was getting a 30-minute elliptical or treadmill workout in regularly—until it became clear that it wasn’t enough. Not even close. 

My weight loss had stalled and I wasn’t really feeling those other benefits, like extra energy or confidence, anymore. That’s when I decided to apply for a desk job at a fancy fitness center. The job came with a free gym membership and discounted personal training sessions, and I immediately put those perks to use. 

My trainer at that gym would be the first of a few personal trainers I’ve worked with over the past 14 years. Each relationship began with a slightly different goal in mind. In college, I wanted someone to teach me about strength training and hold me accountable for doing it. And that’s exactly what she did. She kept me laughing and smiling through even the toughest sessions. 

Later on, after I moved to a different state, I wanted a workout buddy who I could learn from and have fun with, but also would be my rock—a sense of stability and familiarity—in a new city. My second trainer became exactly that, as well as a lifelong friend who opened my eyes to the connections between my mental, emotional, and physical wellness. 

Later, when I was preparing to walk down the aisle (and again in a new city), I wanted a trainer to challenge me in a way that delivered concrete, noticeable results. (Unconsciously, I also needed someone to talk to about my anxieties, stress, and fears.) My third trainer became much more like an older sister who would push me through sprints, guide me through corrective exercises when my discomfort flared, and offer a shoulder when I opened up about my at-times thrilling and other times heartbreaking personal life.  

When I moved yet again, as part of the separation from my spouse, I hoped a trainer could help me shed the weight and sadness that had piled on from several years of heavy emotional labor. I wanted her to tell me what to do so I could return to feeling strong, empowered, and comfortable in my own skin—a process that’s just as emotional as it is physical. In the past year that I’ve known and worked with this trainer, she’s managed to fulfill that need and become my role model, coach, and dear friend.

Every time I started working with a personal trainer, I would cite my desire to amp up my fitness level, maximize my gains, and be held accountable. Personal training definitely met those goals—and more. Ultimately, I’ve received so much more than inches off, sizes down, or pounds benched. 

By working out with these trainers, I’ve also received priceless guidance and friendship (this is probably because I tend to make my workout routine into a holistic experience involving my mind, body, and heart—and they were always along for the ride).

Though it can be pricey, having a personal trainer has always felt like I’ve had someone in my corner, cheering me on, making me feel supported in my endeavors in and outside of the gym. And I’ll never end up bored and plateauing on the elliptical ever again. That’s a win-win. 

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Why I NEVER Miss A Workout—No Matter How Busy I Get

I work as a writer, professor, model, fortune teller, dancer, and yoga teacher (yep—seriously!), so as you can probably imagine, my schedule is chaotic. It can be hard to pin down a solid fitness routine, never mind a time to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

On top of that, I’m super-fussy about where I exercise (no gyms or groups—I’d rather sweat alone!), when I work out (no early mornings), and how I work out (no high-impact moves—I have fibromyalgia).

All of my quirks, needs, and preferences considered, you would think I’d never work out. However, in the spirit of my contrary nature, I actually prioritize it. My one-hour daily workout, no matter what it is or when it is, is a crucial part of my wellness routine these days.

When I was younger, I was very active as a gymnast. I felt strong, energetic, and light. But when injuries prevented me from going further with my gymnastics practice, I fell off the exercise wagon and quickly succumbed to fatigue, depression, and weight gain that didn’t feel right for my frame.

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Years later, when I started exercising again, I began to shake off that fog of exhaustion, and felt my muscles and energy returning. The benefits of movement were just too good to ignore, and because I wanted to feel better (and manage my fibromyalgia), I really needed to make sure I was taking care of myself. I wanted to feel strong and capable in my everyday life.

To start prioritizing exercise again, it came down to figuring out what worked for me (while using some creative problem-solving to satisfy my complications and demands). I decided to go for things I liked that didn’t aggravate my nerve pain. My go-to workouts became pretty adventurous and eclectic: I now practice yoga, go biking and walking, dance (pole or barre), and do Pilates. I also sometimes utilize small weights and resistance bands to build strength and tone, and I try to balance my workouts between flexibility and strength. I use my arms as much as my legs so that I’m getting a full-body workout, and I always engage my core as much as possible.

And then there’s the rebounder trampoline I recently bought, which was truly one of the best decisions I have ever made. It provides a source of fun, low-impact cardio that improves (rather than aggravates) my health conditions.

For me, this diversity is key, because it keeps me from getting bored (since I am often working out at home and distractions do abound). Regularity is also important. Once I began carving out one single hour for myself—every single day, no matter the time—it became second nature. I started looking forward to that hour that’s just for me—no emails or social media or work. Deciding to create time for yourself is a powerful move.

Related: 6 Life-Changing Things I Learned When I Started Working Out Regularly

To combat boredom—and to prevent myself from feeling like my workouts are a chore—I came up with a simple (and helpful!) rule: If I haven’t gotten my workout in and I want to binge on Netflix or listen to a podcast, then I need to be doing something—anything!—while I enjoy it. I might bounce on the trampoline or do some yoga while I watch a documentary, or do some jumping jacks while watching Star Trek (which ends up feeling like I’m flying through space). When I’m watching or listening to something funny, juicy, or riveting, I’m more likely to work out for an even longer period of time—without noticing! Plus, doing this is like a double-whammy of awesome endorphins.

In the end, I’ve found that it’s not so much about having a specific routine, but knowing what will work for me and my schedule—even if it’s not entirely ideal—and making it happen. The most important thing is that I’m trying every day, and feeling stronger, lighter, and more determined to care for my body.

How My Nightly Epsom Salt Baths Make Everything Better

When I first learned about the magical powers of Epsom salt baths, I thought: This is too good to be true. For starters, Epsom salt (also known as magnesium sulfate) relaxes your muscles like nobody’s business.

Because of its many health benefits, I decided to start incorporating Epsom salt into my nightly ritual. I already loved taking long, sudsy baths, but adding Epsom salt to the tub kicked the experience up a whole lotta notches. Bath time became not only relaxing, but purposeful.

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Here’s what regularly soaking in Epsom salt baths does for me.

Chills Me Out

Magnesium tends to be used up when we’re stressed out (leading to all sorts of bad news, like irritability, high blood pressure, and digestive issues), so sitting in a magnesium bath actually helps replenish those stores. I’m not certain of whether a single bath can do the trick, but taking a good 10 minutes before bed each night helps me drift off to sleep in a more peaceful way. The worries and anxieties of the day sort of just vanish. Whether it’s the effect of ritualizing self-care or the magnesium alone (or some combo of both), I have felt so much more relaxed after incorporating this into my routine.

soothes My Aches & Pains

My muscles are often tight, which, like most of us, comes from a combo of hunching over a desk and not getting enough movement in during the day. I’ve also got an autoimmune issue that causes chronic pain in my back and neck. Magnesium is said to relieve muscle and tissue aches, which makes sense because magnesium is found in our bones, muscles, and tissues. Spending  just 10 minutes in a magnesium bath helps me feel more ready for bed—I’m way more limber and the aches and pains sort of fall into the background.

Related: 4 Easy Ways To Use Aromatherapy Blends For Self-Care

Eases my Stomach

I’ve always had digestive issues. They stem from autoimmune issues, as well as a deep love of cheese and carbs. Whenever I have dairy or gluten, I end up bloated, in pain, or constipated. Not a fun time! Short of trying to exercise control over some of my bad eating habits (“I’ll pass on the cheese” is a concept I don’t understand), I take probiotics and sit in my Epsom salt baths.

Some people drink magnesium or take magnesium supplements, but I find a bath to be helpful in helping me stay regular and debloating a puffy belly.

Softens My Skin

Every single time I leave an Epsom bath, my skin feels smooth, exfoliated, and soft. I tend to have pretty rough skin: I probably don’t drink enough water, and swimming in chlorinated water certainly doesn’t help! Thankfully, Epsom salt counterbalances all of those effects. I always apply a bit of coconut oil (Shea Moisture’s Virgin Coconut Oil is my favorite) after the bath to double down on the results.

All in all, making regular time for an Epsom bath has worked wonders for my body and my psyche. I like to know that I’m taking care of myself—and there’s certainly plenty of undeniable benefits to magnesium. Plus, it’s just so easy!

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I’m A Poison Ivy Magnet—Here’s How I Relieve My Rashes Naturally

As an only child for almost a decade, I spent a lot of time playing by myself outdoors, making up games and jumping into the brush and plucking flowers. I’d run around in fields until sunset and climb trees and dream up stories of faerie rings.

One summer, I came home with a red rash that was rapidly spreading from my arms down my side. I was rushed to the emergency room when it spread inside my throat. Large brownish-red masses swallowed up my face and my eyes were swelled shut and covered in lumpy welts. It was the start of a lifelong relationship I’d go on to have with poison ivy. 

At least once per summer I’d get a serious reaction to poison ivy, and during the healing process I would have to stay home from school (mostly because I was contagious, but also because I looked like an alien).

My mother would cleanse and gently apply both calamine and medicated lotion to my whole body. I was also given steroids. It was frustrating, painful, itchy, embarrassing, and exhausting. Imagine being itchy ALL DAY LONG. It’s torturous, and it usually lasts—unless there’s quick intervention—around two to three weeks.

So what’s responsible for the rash? Urushiol, the compound inside of poison ivy (and poison sumac and oak, and even parts of the mango tree) causes the skin irritation. Depending on the amount of urushiol oil you get on your skin (and whether or not you touch other parts of your body or take a shower after being near or in a heavily poison ivy-filled area), you may experience a massive rash outbreak or just a small patch or two. My brother, for example, would catch poison ivy from me—but he’d only experience a few small lumps. You could say I was jealous.

As I got older and learned how to differentiate between certain flowers and plants (poison ivy tends to have little hair-like follicles at the base or red or yellow patches or lines on the leaves), I was affected less often. However, at least once every few years, I still get a nice reminder of poison ivy by waking up with a patch—usually on my neck, hands, upper arms, or back. It’s contagious, can knock you out, and can spread easily—so by now I have an arsenal of natural ways to treat it:

Apple Cider Vinegar

According to the journal MedGenMed, poison ivy rash irritation can be reduced by using Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)—my favorite go-to for all sorts of ailments, including shingles (yep, I can speak to that as well). I soak a rag in cool water and ACV (you want to dilute the ACV so it’s not too acidic, though I tend to prefer a little less water and little more ACV), and then apply it as a compress against the rash. You can put two parts water to one part ACV as a start.

Oatmeal Baths

I’ve got more memories of soaking in an oatmeal bath than I’d like to admit! The stuff works, but it might turn you off of oatmeal for breakfast for life. According to the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, oatmeal has long been a key player (as in, for centuries) in skin-soothing remedies. It’s believed to relieve itchiness and irritation—mostly due to its starch and beta-glucan, which are skin-protective compounds. It also contains phenols, which deliver antioxidant powers. To use, grind oatmeal into a fine powder (most blenders will do this for you) and pour about two-three cups into a half-filled bath.

Related: I Thought I Was Too Young To Get Shingles

I prefer to use cool or lukewarm water (since hot water can majorly aggravate itchiness). Sitting for about a half an hour, making sure to immerse myself, really helps. I also like to pat the oatmeal directly onto my poison ivy-covered skin to let it work its magic. Rinse off, pat dry, clean the tub, and throw out the residue. (Oh, and be sure to quarantine the towel you use, as the poison ivy oils can stick to fabric.)

Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel is an incredible wellness tool—it can be used as a cleansing agent, and is painless when applied to irritated or wounded skin. Because witch hazel is an astringent, it promotes the skin’s process of healing. I like to use it (especially for very small patches of poison ivy) by pouring it onto a small towel, applying it directly to the area for a few minutes. This is especially helpful when the skin is weeping or feeling super-aggravated. 

Baking Soda

I swear by this remedy—and it’s always served me well! When my poison ivy blisters are open or weeping, I’ll mix about four tablespoons of baking soda into a small glass of water. When it becomes a thick, gooey consistency, I’ll apply it (like a paste) right over the skin. I tend to do this several times a day, especially in the early stages of poison ivy. I also cover the area with a light wrap or gauze to keep the paste intact.

And, just like the oatmeal bath, it’s a good idea to pour a little baking soda into the tub and let the concoction do its magic. You may want to mix the baking soda and the oatmeal together for an ultra-powerful blend of poison ivy-fighting goodness.

The Different Teas I Drink For Allergies, Anxiety, Tummy Issues, And More

Often, we’re reactive and not proactive about our health, and we overlook holistic remedies because we’ve been told they won’t be effective. Over the past few years, I’ve struggled with a few different health issues—anxiety, insomnia, indigestion, allergies, and acne. I wasn’t getting answers from my doctor, so I started seeking out holistic practitioners, who are more focused on the cause than simply treating the illness.

First, I wanted to feel heard about my head-to-toe health, since a body and the human inhabiting it add up to more than a set of symptoms. There’s a whole ecosystem inside each of us that needs to be tended to and treated as an interdependent network! I wanted to be looked at as a whole.

Second, I wanted to see if there were preventative (and not reactive) treatments. After all, who wants to wait until 2 a.m. on a work night—after they’ve been tossing and turning and letting their thoughts spin for several hours—before taking medicine to induce sleep? Who wants to wait for that big zit to appear on their forehead to glob some goo on it? Wouldn’t it work better to take care of your body before the issues occur?

When I asked my holistic practitioner about natural ways to treat or prevent some of my issues, she suggested experimenting with herbal teas. My interest (and certainly a healthy dose of skepticism) was piqued—after all, how could some dried herbs and flowers steeped in hot water help me? In time, I found my answer.

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My Allergies

I have dealt with environmental allergies since the spring of my seventh grade year. When I say allergies, I mean horrific hay fever, complete with sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and a throat that felt like it was on fire. I still take over-the-counter or prescription medication for allergies (due to the sheer severity of the problem), but I will say with utmost certainty that a morning cup of tea has been helping me manage these symptoms for several years now.

I often wake up feeling congested and sneezy, so I now start my day with just a bit of caffeine in the form of green tea, to which I add a teaspoon of local honey (which my doctor suggested because it’s said to have a positive impact on allergy symptoms). Just sipping on the hot liquid from a mug—and basking in the steam that comes from it—helps slow mucus production and improves nasal drainage. It also feels great on an inflamed, sore nose.

The science around green tea is there, too: According to a study abstract in Allergology International, green tea has been found to be beneficial in improving allergy issues.

After my morning tea ritual, I always feel clearer in my ears, nose, lungs, and throat.

Related: Can Drinking Lemon Water Really Help You Lose Weight?

My Skin

Later on in my day, I tend to move onto herbal (non-caffeinated) teas. Part of my proactive health agenda is to take measures to stop acne and blemishes before they show up.

I’ve dealt with oily, spotty skin since I was 10 years old. In my experience, using too many masks, creams, pills, and potions tend to aggravate my skin issues. I like to stick to mindful hydration when it comes to my skin—and that’s definitely where rosehip tea enters the picture. It’s packed with antioxidants, as well as vitamin C, which is not just good for your immunity, but a key player in skin health. I believe it helps keep my skin clear and hydrated. There are still fluctuations here and there, but it’s much rarer for me to wake up with a dreaded unicorn zit when I drink rosehip tea on the regular.

My anxiety, insomnia, and digestive issues

My anxiety, insomnia, and digestive issues are all tangled—and that’s because my mental health impacts my digestion, and vice versa. For example, stress during the day has caused me to experience stomach upset. This, in turn, keeps me up at night. With racing thoughts and a gurgling gut, I don’t get much sleep. Because of a lack of sleep, I’ll have shaky fingers, a lack of focus, forgetfulness, and nervousness to the point of stammering (in entirely normal social situations).

For stomach issues, I’ll sip on peppermint tea throughout the day or with my lunch (to help prevent digestive issues like bloating and heartburn) or when I feel stomach problems set in.

If my stomach is more stressed than usual, I’ll drink a cup or two of ginger tea, which is known for soothing an upset gut. I don’t particularly love the flavor of ginger, so it’s not something I drink for the experience. However, a cup of this stuff always calms my belly.

Related: How I Kicked My Coffee Habit For Tea—And Lived Happily Ever After

For sleeplessness or as a sleep-inspiring nighttime ritual, I turn to chamomile, which is said to relax and sooth the body. Chamomile tea eases me into my nighttime routine, helps me relax before I get into bed, and doesn’t have any nasty side effects in the morning.

Drinking tea slowly is ritualistic, which is self-care at its finest: You’re boiling the water, steeping the concoction, waiting for it to cool down, and then drinking it. It engages each of our senses simultaneously while we take our time contemplatively sipping. A big part of its curative qualities, aside from the evidence that it works, is that I’m doing something I know is good for me.

Since I started drinking herbal tea on a daily basis nearly three years ago, it’s helped me lessen my medicine intake, maintain a healthy routine, and ease many of my problematic symptoms.

Who’s Good: A Q&A With Orgain Founder Dr. Andrew Abraham

Whether you’re looking to bolster your wellness routine, learn more about healthy eating, or find an inspiring Fitstagram account, look no further than Who’s Good, a regular interview series from the editors of What’s Good that catches up with the best, brightest, and boldest the wellness world has to offer.

In 2008, Dr. Andrew Abraham founded Orgainthe go-to brand for clean organic shakes, nutritional powders, and more. We caught up with Abraham to learn about his inspiring journey from teenage cancer patient to medical doctor to entrepreneur, as well as the genesis of Orgain.

Thanks for joining us for Who’s Good, Dr, Abraham! To start off, can you tell us a little about your background as a doctor and wellness enthusiast?

I come from a family of physicians. Nearly everyone in my family is in the medical field, so it was instilled in me from a young age that I would also practice medicine. As a child, I enjoyed going along with my dad to see his patients, and as I grew up I continued to be intrigued by medicine, so after college, I went to medical school to become a physician.

Because of a serious battle with cancer as a teen, I started medical school with an unique interest and focus on holistic wellness and nutrition—focusing on preventative measures over simply treating an illness.

How exactly did your battle with cancer reshape your perspective of health and nutrition?

When I was 17, I found a small lump in my abdomen. I went from playing sports and feeling great to being diagnosed with aggressive sarcoma. We were praying that it was localized, but the cancer spread to my lymph nodes. I had radiation, chemotherapy, and even surgery. 

I was in and out of the hospital and my body was really getting tested. I got down to less than 100 pounds, and at that point, my doctor explained that while the cancer was dangerous, malnutrition might be the thing that would kill me. He handed me a conventional nutritional drink, and told me to drink as much as I could. My mom—God bless her—bought 14 cases of the stuff.

I drank these shakes every single day under the assumption that they were good for me. They tasted horrid, so naturally, I thought, whatever is inside of this…if it tastes this bad it has to be good for me.

In an effort to pass the time while on bed rest, I started to read all about nutrition. One book turned into five, and then 20, and then 100. I think I read about 150 books about nutrition in total. 

As I read and learned about nutrition, I came across a page in a book that listed ingredients one should never put in their body. So I checked what I’d been drinking—and was horrified to see that it contained all of those bad ingredients: high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified soy protein, artificial flavors, and preservatives.

It read more like a synthetic lab experiment than a food, which was horrifying. Because of this, I started to blend my own nutritional drinks at home, replacing those ingredients with organic whey, pea protein, and fresh fruits and veggies. Pretty soon, I was better tolerating treatments, gaining weight, and my energy improved. Essentially, I taught myself all about nutrition and wellness, and I learned along the way that treating yourself as a whole (rather than just treating the issue) is really powerful.

Related: Shop all of Orgain’s healthy products

That’s incredible! So there was absolutely nothing like what you’d made out there already?

There was nothing like it! I asked around, “Does anyone make an organic ready-to-drink shake?” The answer was no. So I decided to make one, and it caught on. 

Down the road, I was supposed to take over my dad’s family practice, but I was sure I wanted to focus on Orgain. I felt strongly that I could help many more people through Orgain than as a doctor.

Your story is so inspiring. What should people take from it, and what should they know about the intersection of nutrition and wellness?

Most people don’t know how good their body is actually designed to feel. When our bodies are properly taken care, we can really feel it. We have more energy, we can heal, we can avoid disease, and we feel better overall.

Even small changes in the right direction can improve our health. Invest in yourself and your body today, because it will pay dividends in the future. We live in a time when everything is moving more quickly and the body gets bombarded by pollution and stress. We have to do our best to counteract that. Nutrition is one major way.

Yes! Even small victories count! Now, who would benefit the most from your range of products?

A vast majority of our consumers are people who lead an active, busy lifestyle. Orgain products are for someone who wants convenience post-workout or a quick and easy breakfast or snack on the go.

It’s for anyone who wants to replace an entire meal, as well, since our shakes are a complete organic meal in a bottle. They contain protein, fat, and complex carbs. In fact, we receive lots of heartfelt letters from people who couldn’t tolerate conventional shakes and use Orgain products as a sole source of nutrition.

What sort of ingredients will customers find in your products?

We’ve got strict standards and are relentless about clean nutrition and great taste. Nearly all of our products are certified organic. We never use artificial ingredients or flavors or preservatives, and avoid sourcing proteins that have pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. We encourage consumers to look at the label, too!

Can you tell us about your partnership with WhyHunger, and why it’s important to you?

We believe so deeply in the importance of quality nutrition, and see good nutrition as something everyone should have access to. So, we’ve partnered with NY-based nonprofit WhyHunger on a campaign called Shake Hunger, to help change the way food banks work, and increase access to healthy food. (You can support this initiative by here.)

Diggin’ Who’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

How I Learned To De-stress, Gained Energy, & Lost Belly Fat

I lead a pretty busy life: I’m a real estate agent in New York City (which means I’m constantly on the phone or running around or filling out paperwork), my social life is important to me, and I travel often to see family and friends in different states and countries.

Some people thrive emotionally, and even lose weight, from always being on-the-go. For me, though, leading a busy life means carrying around a good deal of stress. I find it virtually impossible to regulate my worrying and just turn off, which my doctor says is a recipe for all sorts of problems, like high blood pressure and insomnia and cortisol overload.

Did you know that cortisol contributes to belly fat? Yeah, I didn’t either—until my gut started getting out of hand when my stress levels grew. The science doesn’t lie: An extract from a study published in Obesity Research found a direct correlation between both stress and cortisol levels and “greater abdominal fat depots.” According to Harvard Health, belly fat isn’t just an aesthetic issue, either—it’s linked to high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and problematic blood sugar levels.

I genuinely wasn’t aware of the terrible lifestyle habits that were linked to my stress until recently. For one, I was too busy to care. Secondly, I wasn’t brought up in a healthy family. I wasn’t raised to eat healthfully, nor was I raised to exercise or be mindful of my body. These just weren’t things my family prioritized, and that sort of thinking stuck in my adult life. Long day? Fried chicken. Lots of paperwork? Sit hunched over at my desk, totally sedentary. Bedtime? Stay up late stress-binging Netflix until 3 a.m. It all contributed to a giant, overbearing sense of disconnection, feeling crappy, exhaustion, and yes, weight gain.

I was clued into needing a change when I realized I was literally living for my job and ignoring everything else. A friend pointed out how stressed I seemed, and how much I’d changed, which was the wakeup call I needed.

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I decided to see both a doctor and a therapist. I needed someone to tell me exactly how bad things were getting—and how to fix the issues. My doctor urged me to eat better, and to eat more frequent, smaller meals. So, I complied.

Instead of eating a burger or pizza or fried chicken whenever I was feeling super-stressed or hungry, I grabbed a fruit shake or smoothie every few hours when I was feeling an energy dip. I won’t lie: I’ll never be in love with nutritious eating, but paying attention to what I’m eating (and when) allowed me to keep my energy levels up and not experience inevitable sugar crashes and stomach distress. I also started adding daily multivitamins to make up for gaps in my diet.

The nutrition aspect was only one part of the whole, however. My therapist suggested I try to “live in the moment” every once in a while. When I had a good day or experienced something pleasant, she suggested I close my eyes and let that thought wash over me. (She also suggested I take that approach every so often with food: sit down with my food instead of inhaling it, being more mindful of the food itself, as well as the experience of eating.)

When it came to managing and de-escalating feelings of overwhelm or stress, she recommended that I take a few deep breaths, acknowledge the stress, and break down my tasks into organized steps. The result? Instead of feeling like I was drowning in a million phone calls or emails or appointments, I was able to separate myself from the moment and then tackle my to-do list with a clear mind.

The last thing I did was disconnect from physical objects, like my phone and my computer. I’d take strategic breaks throughout my busy day. No social media. No news. No emails. I’d let my mind dissolve and I’d just be in the moment. I’m no Zen guru, and I’ll never be “good” at disconnecting (mostly because my job requires me to be connected), but giving myself a few moments to turn off has helped immensely with my stress levels.

Related: 3 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed

Armed with my newfound ability to live in the moment, I didn’t want to disrupt or take away from my efforts by going and throwing it all away at some fast food joint. I even started adding a few workouts to my week. It’s amazing how a new perspective and set of coping tools can refresh your definition of “living well.”

There were many tangible things I noticed after about four weeks of practicing mindfulness. For one, I had more energy throughout the day. At night, I fell asleep at a reasonable hour, instead of letting my thoughts race through my mind, and I slept more soundly. Plus, my gut had actually gotten smaller! I was able to fit into my favorite pairs of jeans and trousers without my belly bulging over the top, and I felt more confident in my workwear. As a real estate agent, you’ve got to look polished and smart, so this was a real win for me.

Before learning (both from my doctor and from my own experiences) that there is a legitimate connection between our bodies and our psyches, I was really risking it with my own sanity and health: Eating what I wanted, whenever I wanted, never stopping to take a moment for myself, and neglecting my body’s needs could never be sustainable, and I’m so glad I made the effort to improve my lifestyle before I put my health at even greater risk.

I Tried Powering My Runs With Caffeinated Gum—Check Out My Results

One of the first things you learn when you start running long distances is how important it is to fuel your body while you’re running. Sure, you need to eat a healthy diet the rest of the time, but if you’re running for an hour or more, you’re probably going to need to gas up your engine while you’re on the go—and that’s not exactly easy.

In my three years of racing everything from 5Ks to marathons, I’ve seen runners down some pretty crazy foods, drinks, and other products, like Gatorade (of course), energy gels, Clif Bloks, Power Bars, bananas, salt tablets, and more. At the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon, aid stations handed out apple slices. At the Boston Marathon, runners grabbed orange slices and gummy bears out of kids’ grubby hands. During the half marathon portion of a half Ironman triathlon, one station even offered Red Bull and soda to runners! (The easy-to-digest simple sugars can really give you an extra boost—especially towards the end of a race—but wow).

The thing is, in order to find out what really works for you and avoid any gnarly stomach issues on race day, you have to test your race fuel during training. The only thing I eat on a run—and only during runs over 10 miles—is a sugar bomb of an energy chew, which I can down in about two bites. Still, I’m game to try anything, so when I heard The Vitamin Shoppe launched Run Gum—not just any gum, but gum that contains energy-boosting vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, and taurine (an amino acid and antioxidant that can stimulate the muscles) to power workouts and busy days—I was all for seeing if it could give my runs an extra boost.

Here’s how it works: Every packet contains two pieces of gum—and each piece packs about 50 milligrams of caffeine. You can pop one piece for ‘moderate’ energy, or chomp on both for a bigger kick. Run Gum comes in three flavors: fruit, cinnamon, and mint. (I preferred the mint, but like most gum, after about five minutes they all taste basically the same.)

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Since I was in between races, it was the perfect time to experiment with a new type of fuel. For my first trial, I took one fruit-flavored piece right before heading out to run three miles. It was 80 degrees and super-humid—not my favorite running weather—but I didn’t notice anything majorly different about my energy levels, and my pace seemed pretty on par with my usual.

The next day, I chewed one piece of the cinnamon-flavored gum at the start of another three-mile run, and popped a second piece in at the halfway point. I had started out feeling pretty tired (it was a Sunday night and I may have closed down the bar with my friends the night before), but I did feel like I picked up the pace towards the end!

Two days later, I popped one piece of mint Run Gum halfway through my third three-mile run—and that run actually felt the easiest of the three. It was still hot out, but rain had washed away some of the humidity and I’d caught up on my sleep, so I felt like I was back to my normal self.

In the moment, it was hard to judge just how much the Run Gum affected my run performance, especially since the circumstances of my runs were all a little different. (Thanks a lot, rain, heat, and hangovers…) So I turned to my data—and it was a little surprising. According to my Nike Running Club app, my fastest average pace was actually during my first run, when I chewed one piece of gum at the outset and didn’t really notice any energy boost. During my second run, when I chewed two pieces, my speed actually dropped in the last mile—even though I thought I picked up the pace. Maybe all that chewing threw off my perception of my speed… However, it was during my third run, when I started chewing on Run Gum halfway through, that I hit my fastest mile. Score!

Related: 11 Caffeine-Free Ways To Power Your Workouts

With those stats in mind, I thought maybe my first run turned out to be the fastest because I wasn’t really chewing that long while I was running. (I popped the gum into my mouth before I started, chewed for the first half mile or so to get the juice out of it and tossed it.) You see, I find it hard to chew and run at the same time (I can’t drink water and run at the same time either, and usually walk through water stations when I need a drink during races). Using my mouth for something other than breathing was distracting, and I figured that not being able to breathe at full capacity slowed down my pace when I chewed.

That said, that first run was my fastest, so clearly something about using Run Gum to kick off my run worked in my favor, whether it was the caffeine, the vitamins, the taurine, or a combo of the three. Though Run Gum may not replace my go-to fuel for longer-distance races, like half and full marathons (I think I’ll still need the sugar), I’ll definitely try chewing on some Run Gum before training runs and races to jump-start my system.

Not to mention, Run Gum’s energy boost could also prove very handy when that three o’clock slump hits me at work. If I’m going to chew gum anyway, why not chew gum that has perks.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

How I Finally Stopped Yo-Yo Dieting And Became A Celebrity Weight Loss Coach

For most of my life, struggling with weight was my identity. As early as fifth grade, I noticed I didn’t look like the rest of my peers, and at 14, I attended my first weight loss meeting. I was by far the youngest person there. The then-trendy weight loss program, called Diet Center, involved weekly weigh-ins and an extremely restrictive eating plan of bland lean proteins and vegetables. And so began my life of dieting and fearing food.

Throughout my teens, 20s, and early 30s, I lost and gained the same 35 pounds over and over and over again. I tried every plan imaginable, from the Grapefruit Diet to the Soup Diet, and read as many diet books as I could get my hands on. While I could always lose the weight, I could never keep it off.

I thought I had to follow a strict eating plan, and that if I wavered it even slightly, I was failing. So when I did waver, I became so distressed that I ate everything in sight. I fell into a cycle of restricting food, breaking down, overeating, and punishing myself by restricting all over again.

My relationship with food and my body only grew worse when I started a career as a Broadway actress and singer after finishing my Master’s degree. I knew every extra pound could be the difference between landing a gig or losing it—because agents and casting directors thought nothing of telling me I was too heavy for a role. Food, exercise, and my weight took over my life. I felt great when my weight was down and terrible when it was up. I was either eating plain grilled chicken with salad and exercising for hours a day, or chowing down on anything I felt like and not exercising at all. Healthy balance felt impossible.

After 10 years in theater, I’d had enough. As I walked away from that career, I finally felt free from the constant pressure to be as thin as possible. So what did I do? I completely abandoned exercise and gave in to every temptation, binging on all the food I’d spent a decade trying to deprive myself of. I gained 35 pounds—fast.

Again, I was desperate—but I realized I would never live a healthy, fulfilled life, or maintain a weight I felt good about, with my extreme approach to food and exercise. So, after reading about their flexible, realistic eating plan, I decided to give Weight Watchers a try. Throughout the next five months, I finally shared my insecurities, unhealthy behaviors, and fears at support meetings, which was a huge weight off of my shoulders. I enjoyed pizza, occasional desserts, and wine (all workable in the Weight Watchers program), and shed the weight I’d gained.

I felt like I’d found a family of other people who had struggled the way I did, and the positive environment helped me maintain my weight loss for the first time in my life. When a receptionist job opened up at the company, I applied, thinking it would be a temporary gig. Quickly, though, I became a meeting leader, running 17 group support meetings a week, and found myself helping launch the Weight Watchers website.

As the months and years passed, and I was able to consistently wear the same size clothing, my confidence grew, and my yo-yo ways of the past finally faded. I realized that one slip-up did not have to lead to days or weeks of binging, and that I could return to my healthy eating patterns at my next meal. My life fell into a balance: Instead of thinking of workouts as erasers of bad food choices, I exercised joyfully, savoring walks outside, jogs, and kickboxing. I packed healthy snacks (like nuts or hummus and veggies) for work, and discovered my go-to recipes (like ground turkey and tomato sauce over spaghetti squash). The more consistent my routine became, the easier it was to sprinkle in indulgences without going overboard. Finally, I realized what it meant to be healthy.

After nearly eight years with Weight Watchers—during which I had two beautiful sons and successfully lost 50-plus pounds of pregnancy weight, twice—I became their Director of Brand Advocacy and National Spokesperson, appearing on programs like Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Good Morning America and collecting success stories from members across the country to be featured on our website and in our magazine. I flew from New York to Los Angeles every week to lead meetings for Jessica Simpson and a dozen of her friends and relatives, helped Katie Couric negotiate a healthier on-set buffet table as a newly-minted news anchor, and assured Jennifer Hudson that she could indeed fit Buffalo wings into her meal plan.

It was a rush, and forced me to really step up my own weight maintenance skills as I navigated constant travel, jet lag, time zone changes, and new stress. I learned I couldn’t always be perfect, but I could be consistent. I packed snacks for long flights, turned down alcohol, kept workout gear with me at all times, used hotel gyms, and stocked mini fridges with my own healthy food. No challenge could derail my healthy lifestyle!

After 11 years with Weight Watchers, I decided to take everything I’d learned about balanced living, self-love, and long-term weight loss success and go out on my own to help others get healthy and stay that way. I studied to become a certified personal trainer and nutrition exercise specialist, and have since consulted for weight loss and wellness companies all over the world, and helped all kinds of clients—from celebrities and CEOs to stay-at-home parents—achieve their health and fitness goals.

I think my personal weight loss journey has helped me better understand and support others—and just as my career develops, so does my personal health journey. As I learn and grow, I am constantly fine-tuning my strategy for maintaining a healthy weight and attitude. Maintenance is an active process, and if you want to continue to see success long-term, you have to keep your eyes open to the ever-changing landscape of your life! Sure, as I get older I may not be able to drink as much wine as I used to, or have as much for dinner as my growing sons, but these days I’m excited to find out where my next chapter will take me, and I know that health will be a part of who I am forever.

Liz Josefsberg is a weight loss and wellness expert with over 15 years in the industry, as well as a member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. A mom, author, fitness enthusiast, and weight loss success story herself (65 pounds lost!), Liz consults all over the world. She loves testing every diet, exercise regimen, device, and piece of gear she can get her hands on. 

I’ve Lost 30 Pounds On Keto—But The Benefits Go Way Beyond Weight Loss

Like a lot of people, I ate a ton of pasta and pizza during my college days. I not only gained the feared “freshman 15,” but my stomach was often a mess. There were days when intense nausea or intestinal pain would prevent me from going to class (or going out at all).

Eventually I saw a doctor, who gave me probiotics to balance my gut, but he also recommended that I remove things from my diet, one by one, to determine the root cause of my digestive issues. Ultimately, the culprit turned out to be those heavy carbs I was eating.

Together, we decided that I’d start a keto diet, which focuses on low-carb and higher fat intake. It also doesn’t restrict the amount of food you eat—it’s not about calorie counting—which was important to me. The goal of keto is to get into a metabolic state called ketosis, which happens when the body is deprived of carbs and starts to break down stores of fat for energy.

To start, I cut out potatoes, bread, rice, soda, cereal, and sugary sweets. (I’ll be honest: I still miss those foods—a lot.) I added healthy fats (like avocados) and tons of protein-packed fish (like salmon, tuna, trout, and swordfish) to my diet. I also upped my intake of specific veggies, such as Brussels sprouts, arugula, and bok choy. To get my pasta fix, I started making veggie noodles with a spiralizer.

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Even though I was making strides in replacing my core foods, learning to count my carbs was certainly an obstacle in the beginning. Most people know that eating fried chicken or cheeseburgers all the time probably isn’t good for you, but with keto, you have to get specific—especially if you want to get into ketosis. For example, you have to be aware of your carbohydrate-to-fiber and natural sugar ratio. I don’t exceed 30 grams of carbs per day. This is pretty challenging because hidden carbohydrates are everywhere.

For the first few weeks, I constantly needed to pull up the approved keto diet list when grocery shopping. I’d often have to put things back on the shelf—especially fruits, which I never realized were so high in sugar. But I eventually got into a routine with it.

A lot of people were skeptical when they heard I was doing keto. They couldn’t conceive of how a diet that allows you to eat a ton of protein and fat could possibly be healthy for you. (Hint: I do not eat bacon all day! I choose clean proteins and healthy fats.)

What works for me is having a variety of clean snacks or small meals on-hand (like avocados, hard boiled eggs, celery and peanut butter, or tomatoes and blue cheese dressing) when I’m hungry. It helps with the cravings—and prevents me from reaching for an easy (and most likely carb-heavy) meal.

Related: Want To Try Keto? Here’s What A Healthy Day Of Eating Fat Looks Like

To me, eating keto has become more than just a diet. It’s a lifestyle.

Even though keto can be pretty hard, it is rewarding: I lost 30 pounds in six months and my digestive problems have totally disappeared. I also have way more energy! Before going keto, I’d reached a point with my weight where I was lethargic and couldn’t do the things I wanted to do—like take long walks with my girlfriend.

The benefits of going keto, however, go well beyond the physical: I feel more in control of my wellness, I’m way more creative about my food, and I’m more mindful of my body and my time.

I’m always researching new and exciting meal options, which keeps keto from being boring or unsatisfying. (There’s usually a keto version of any recipe out there, and it can be a fun challenge to find it and make it.) I usually prep my meals on Sunday nights for the week ahead, which has allowed me to better budget my time (as a recent graduate student and full-time professional, it’s crucial.)

Mostly, I am empowered by my own effort. There’s no quick and easy way to be healthy. Choosing to eat healthfully takes time and focus.

These days, checking nutrition labels has become second nature to me, which is a game-changer. I’ve never paid more attention to what I put in my body! It’s made me more mindful of the fact that quality really is more important than speed and ease.

Like anything else, the more effort you put into keto, the better the overall results. I love knowing that the hard work I’m doing has a direct influence on my physical and mental wellbeing.

I Took Collagen ‘Beauty Shots’ For A Month—Here’s What Happened

With my 30th birthday approaching sooner than I’d like, I’ve spent a lot of time recently looking into how to switch up my beauty routine in order to stave off the inevitable wrinkles. I tried Botox about eight months ago, and while I liked how smooth it made my forehead, it’s not exactly the most cost-effective method to keep lines at bay. So when I heard about Reserveage Nutrition’s Watermelon Mint Beauty Shotsantioxidant and collagen protein-packed beauty drinks that can be taken daily to support healthy, youthful skin—I knew I had to give them a, well, shot. I decided to down one every day for a month in hope of more youthful skin on the horizon.

What’s In A ‘Beauty Shot,’ Exactly?

The star of Reserveage’s beauty shots is the ever-trending collagen protein. “Collagen, an essential building block of healthy skin, is the protein matrix that keeps skin firm and strong,” says Bobby Buka, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and contributing founder and chief science officer of First Aid Beauty. “This collagen can become easily damaged as a result of our daily exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight and pollutants.” And when collagen breaks down, you can say hello to wrinkles.

Each beauty shot (three ounces) contains five grams of hydrolyzed collagen, along with a few other skin-loving ingredients like 90 milligrams of vitamin C (which protects against environmental damage that causes aging), 15 milligrams of biotin (the B vitamin that supports strong skin, hair, and nails), and hydrators like hyaluronic acid, cucumber extract, and aloe vera extract. The label references a study that found that 2.5 grams of collagen per day increased skin elasticity after just four weeks, so considering the beauty shots contained twice that amount of collagen, I was optimistic!

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“When we take collagen, it gets broken down into amino acids by our digestive system,” says Monique Chheda, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. “These amino acids are then absorbed through the gut.” Once absorbed, collagen can be utilized throughout our entire body—not just our skin—so there’s no guarantee where it’ll end up, she explains. (Collagen is also important for gut and joint health.) Though more research is needed on collagen’s skin benefits, both docs I spoke with said there certainly wouldn’t be any downsides to getting more of it!

Shots, Anyone?

As a beauty writer, I have access to the best skin-care products (#workperks) and know I have to be very diligent with sunscreen, so my skin started off in pretty good shape. That said, though, I have started to notice itty-bitty lines forming at the corners of my eyes, and that my face looks more tired and dull than it did in my early and mid-20s.

So given how important collagen is for skin health—and how much pollution I’m exposed to living in New York City—I was pumped to add these beauty shots to my daily routine and see whether I’d notice any differences after a month.

Related: Which Type Of Collagen Is Right For You?

I kept the rest of my relatively low-maintenance beauty routine exactly the same so I could measure whether or not the collagen shots were doing anything: I used a gentle facial cleanser morning and night, applied sunscreen in the morning, and continued my usual retinol serum before bed (retinol is the gold standard wrinkle-fighting ingredient). Once a week, I slathered on a brightening face mask.

I’m always in a rush to get to the office on time in the morning, so I stashed my shots in my bag the night before so I wouldn’t forget to take them. Still, I got home from work most days that first week only to find the shot still in my bag—so I had my first few shots for dessert. Once I started taking them out of my bag as soon as I sat down at my desk, though, getting into the routine grew easier. On crazy-busy days, I often didn’t get around to imbibing until the afternoon, so instead of going out for my usual iced hibiscus tea at three o’clock, I made the beauty shots my afternoon treat. (I consider the four bucks a day I saved a major perk of the experiment.) I even packed a few shots with me on a long weekend of traveling for a friend’s wedding, and knocked them back before moving onto more traditional celebratory beverages (a.k.a. actual shots).

I expected the shots’ watermelon mint flavor to be overly sweet and artificial (when I hear anything is watermelon-flavored, I automatically assume it’s going to taste like a Jolly Rancher), but it was really delicious! Nice and subtle with no weird aftertaste. And despite all of the ingredients in there, the shots went down like water. I worried they’d be goopy or chalky, but they had a thin, pleasant texture. I came to really enjoy drinking my shot every afternoon, and was sad when my 30 days were up.

My Complexion, A Month Later

After 30 days of dutifully downing my shots, I didn’t notice a change in the wrinkles around my eyes—but I did, however, notice that my complexion looked all-around glowier than usual. Prior to the beauty shot experiment, my entire face had been looking pretty lackluster, but the area underneath my eyes had really been riding struggle bus (which probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t always get a full eight hours of sleep) and I often sported dark circles.

By the time my month-long shot habit came to a close, though, not only did my entire face look brighter, but my under-eye area looked much more, well, alive. I even stopped applying under-eye concealer! Since dullness was something I was looking to address, I was really happy to see that these shots had some effect.

Plus, there was another surprising benefit from taking the shots: My nails suddenly felt harder and stronger. (Chheda told me that research suggests biotin may be helpful for strengthening nails, so I credited the biotin in the shots for the unexpected perk.) I bite my nails and they normally break very easily, but by the end of the 30 days, I realized I hadn’t dealt with a cracked nail since before I started guzzling the shots.

Glowy skin aside, I’d continue drinking the shots just to keep my nails strong year-round!

Want to try Reserveage’s Beauty Shots for yourself? Treat yourself to a six pack or two.

I Tried Using Vitamin B3 To Calm My Nerves

Anyone who suffers from a panic disorder, like myself, knows that feelings of panic or anxiety can be predictable—or they can pop up out of nowhere. While I have learned to anticipate—and take measure against—situations that may set me off, I am still vulnerable to the unexpected. To manage my anxious feelings (at one point I was having panic attacks up to six times a day), I’ve had luck using benzodiazepines (one of a few types of anxiety meds, which includes valium and xanax).

In fact, they’re pretty much the only drugs that have ever had the power to alleviate my own hardcore panic attacks in the moment. However, I make it a point not to use them regularly, because, in my experience, if you can ‘ride out’ an attack, it helps to build resiliency.

These drugs can also present some challenges if you take them regularly and then decide to discontinue use (common withdrawal symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, and anxiety). My fear lies more in knowing I could build up a tolerance to them if I use them enough, which introduces the bloodcurdling possibility that the drug might not work when I’m really freaking out and desperately need it to work.

So, after doing some thorough research, I learned that a more sustainable, everyday, safe solution might just be readily available—right at my local health food store: vitamin B3.

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Studies, like this one published in ISRN Psychiatry, suggest that some people who experience unstable moods and anxious feelings can benefit from regular, daily use of vitamin B3. That’s because, as was published in another study in Orthomolecular, the vitamin influences the balance of brain chemicals like serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, and GABA (all of which control our moods).

After reading the studies, and figuring that I had nothing to lose, I purchased some B3 and tried it for myself. I took 500 mgs a day in the morning and I used no other drugs daily. It’s important to note that people, especially with any sort of health condition, use B3 under the supervision of a doctor.

Related: I Tried Meditation Every Day For A Week—Here’s What Happened

The results

I’m happy to report that I noticed real improvements in the way I felt! Within the first two weeks of taking the supplement, I was much calmer in general. My anxious feelings, which were usually loud and noticeable, quieted down—more like the dull roar of a distant engine. The general feeling of daily distress, which I’d lived with for so long, had subsided, and I had more room to move around in my own psyche without being constantly bombarded by my own anxious thoughts.

Encouraged (and elated!) by these unexpected developments, I wanted to further dive into my own mental wellness. At that point, I started combining the use of B3 with regular exercise, which is known to improve mood and anxiety levels.

By the third week, things only got better.

A month into exercise and B3 usage, I had only had three serious panic attacks. These did require pharmaceutical-drug intervention, but this was a real departure from the number of panic attacks I was having before starting B3.

It was nothing short of a breakthrough for me, as I’m something of a cynic. I didn’t expect the vitamin to work for me (or at least not work to any degree worth mentioning).

Sure, some of this might be the result of a placebo effect, but all I know is that I feel better (and the science backs it up!). I’m no doctor, but I definitely see B3 as a sustainable way to manage my own anxiety. On top of that, I am elated by the prospect of managing my condition more naturally.

I Tried 5:2 Intermittent Fasting For A Month—Here’s How It Went

My natural hunger cues have always left me itching for something to nosh on every three or four hours, so when my Mom swapped her three-meals-a-day eating style for smaller, more frequent meals back in the early 2000s, I became a certified grazer, too.

On a typical day, I’d enjoy six mini-meals: I’d start the day with a Bulletproof coffee and a little Greek yogurt, munch on a protein bar and an apple mid-morning, go for a salad with chicken and veggies at lunch time, enjoy a slice of avocado or almond butter and banana toast mid-afternoon, have grilled chicken and sautéed spinach for dinner, and snack on an apple with peanut butter before bed.

In college, eating these smaller, more frequent meals helped me avoid the ‘Freshman 15,’ and later, at the office, it kept me focused on my work. Research has even linked a ‘grazing’ eating style with lower fasting insulin levels, and I’ve found it keeps my blood sugar and energy levels nice and stable.

After ditching my cubicle to go full-time freelance this January, though, my grazing basically transformed into non-stop inhalation of almond butter. Whether seven o’clock in the morning or nine o’clock at night, you’d find me in the kitchen with a spoon in one hand and a jar of Justin’s nut butter in the other. I was spooning my way through a jar of nut butter every three to four days, and it was time to kick the habit.

As a CrossFit® athlete and health and fitness journalist, I’m constantly charging after new goals, learning about trends, and reading up on the latest research—and I wondered if intermittent fasting, which I’d seen lots of buzz about, could help me nip my out-of-control grazing in the bud. Curious, I decided to give it a go for a month.

Intermittent fasting, which is basically the exact opposite of my grazing ways, is the practice of abstaining from food, typically for extended periods of time. Though fasting has roots in many religions, including Christian, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhist, and Islam, it’s become popular in the wellness community in recent years for its weight loss and health benefits.

The thing with intermittent fasting: There’s no one right way to do it. Some approaches involve completely nixing food for two days per week, others involve eating only during a small six- to eight-hour window every day, and others involve eating just 500 calories a day two days per week.

Related: Is Intermittent Fasting Really All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

I usually eat between 2,200 and 2,400 calories a day, so going full days without any food did not appeal to me (how would I train?). I opted for a type of intermittent fasting known as 5:2 fasting.

Five days a week I’d eat as usual, but on two non-consecutive days, I’d limit myself to just 500 calories a day.

I still had hesitations: Could this approach help me overcome my nut butter habit? Would I be able to stick to it for a full month? Would it affect my workouts?

I hit up one of my favorite dietitians, Jessica Crandall, R.D, who’s a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to talk through my concerns. “If you’re an athlete, you need to plan when you’re going to take a rest or recovery day, and match that up with when you’re going to fast,” she told me.fasting is going to help with recovery? She also advised me to pay close attention to how I felt on the lower-calorie days, and to look out for any nausea, lightheadedness, or cramping.

I followed Crandall’s advice and planned out my first week so I’d fast on Thursday (when I’d do yoga instead of CrossFit) and Sunday (when I’d take a full rest day). In week one, I ate normally Monday through Wednesday and made an effort not to over-indulge on Wednesday night in anticipation of Thursday.

Week 1, Fasting Day 1

I’ll just come right out and say it: My first low-calorie day was a total fail.

I started off okay, whipping up my usual Bulletproof coffee (coffee with MCT oil, butter, and collagen protein) in the morning and sitting down to work until lunch. I’d normally drink my brew (which clocks in at 185 calories) and down my first two mini-meals in that time, but knowing I needed to make my 500 calories last all day, I sucked it up and stuck with just the coffee.

And then noon rolled around… My belly’s excessive grumbling let me know my body was not happy about this switch in routine, so I opened the fridge, looked longingly at my PB, and grabbed a Granny smith apple (60 calories) instead, hoping the fiber would help keep me satiated a little while longer.

An hour later I was hungry again, and I’d already ‘used up’ more than half of my prescribed daily calories. I no longer wanted a scoop of peanut butter; I wanted a 32-ounce steak.

I compromised by grilling up some chicken (200 calories), and luckily felt satiated.

Things went truly awry a few hours later, however, smack in the middle of a downward dog at yoga. I felt lightheaded and unstable (which didn’t surprise me considering I’d consumed just 465 calories, as opposed to my usual 1,500 by this point), and needed to avoid any positions where my head went below my waist for the rest of class. I left feeling agitated.

So what did I do? Hit up my favorite healthy chain, Sweetgreen, and order my go-to: a beet and goat cheese salad with chicken. I tweaked my order and skipped goat cheese and dressing to save some calories, and though the meal tasted pretty flavorless, it still clocked in at around 500 calories. Oops.

That salad made me feel human again, but it pushed my total calorie intake to 965 calories—almost twice more than I was prescribed.

Week 1, Fasting Day 2

I woke up wildly hungry the day after my first attempted fast and housed a three-egg, turkey, cheese, and broccoli omelet, and two slices of buttered whole-grain toast for breakfast. My total calories for the day came in higher than usual, at around 2,500.

On Sunday, my second fasting day, I slept until eleven and opted for a large (like very, very large) black iced coffee and three eggs for breakfast (210 calories).

I hoped my late start would make the rest of the day easier, but by mid-afternoon my stomach was growling again. I tried the fiber approach again by snacking on some carrots (110 calories), and they held me over for another two hours. For dinner, I grilled up some more chicken (200 calories) and sliced up half an avocado (120 calories).

I definitely didn’t feel satisfied or well-fueled. I noticed I’d been responding to emails at a sluggish pace, and again, I caved. I made myself a piece of plain Ezekiel toast (80 calories) so I could power through my inbox, and hit the hay having once again exceeded my calorie limit. At least I was only 200 calories over this time?

Tweaking My Approach

Clearly, week one didn’t go well. My body seemed okay overall—my digestion was still regular and my weight hadn’t changed—but I just didn’t feel good. I spent my first fasting days constantly thinking about food and had to lower my usual squat weight by 10 pounds during Friday’s workout. On Saturday, my training partner also commented that I seemed to be moving slower than usual.

I called Crandall again, and she suggested I increase my calorie intake to 750 and up my protein on fasting days. “As an athlete, you don’t want to put yourself at risk for muscle loss or nutrient deficiencies,” she said. “so try eating egg whites for breakfast and even more lean proteins, like chicken or beef, throughout the day,” she said. I hoped the tweaks would be enough to power my workouts and not feel supremely miserable on lower-calorie days.

Weeks Two And Three

Luckily, my next two weeks went significantly smoother. My digestion continued as normal, and while I was still a little testy on my low-cal days, I got through it. The best part, though? I kept my peanut butter addiction under control throughout my five normal eating days and consistently ate between 750 and 800 calories on my fasting days, which felt much more manageable than trying to stick to 500. Following Crandall’s advice, I made sure the bulk of my fasting-day calories came from proteins. I also focused on high-antioxidant vegetables, which she said would help with satiety and muscle recovery.

I settled into a routine on fasting days that looked like this:

  • Breakfast: large black coffee, two eggs, one egg white (160 calories)
  • Snack: granny smith apple (60 calories)
  • Lunch: undressed spinach salad with half a pound of grilled chicken (240 calories)
  • Dinner: half a pound of grilled chicken or pork with sautéed kale (250 calories)
  • Snack: apple or serving of baby carrots (50 calories)

My biggest remaining issue: that my Monday and Friday workouts (which followed fasting days) still suffered. I felt strong for the first 25 to 40 minutes, but then petered out. When I rowed, my calories-per-hour dropped by about 200; when I ran, I tacked 20 seconds onto my mile time; and when I did burpees (which are usually my thing), I felt like I was moving through molasses. Crandall explained that this was probably due to low carb intake on my fasting days.

Making It Through The Month

After four weeks of fasting, I stepped on the scale to see that I’d dropped two pounds—and losing weight wasn’t even my goal. My body fat percentage didn’t change, though, so I speculate it was just water weight.

Ultimately, my experiment proved that consistently dropping my calories so low twice a week wouldn’t be doable long-term if I wanted to keep training hard. Even after I settled into my routine, I found myself feeling pretty cranky and obsessing over food on fasting days—and day-dreaming about brunch mid-squat!

I will say, though, that the plan definitely did help me kick my nut butter habit. Ditching the calorie-dense creamy stuff on my low-cal days helped me realize I didn’t need that much of it on the other days of the week, aside from my usual nut butter and apple snack—and that’s a win for me.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

What’s For Dinner? Self-Love

Like most people these days, I live a fast and busy life—which makes it challenging to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. For a while I’d heard that meal prepping could help solve this modern-day conundrum, but it wasn’t until I actually put the practice to the test every Sunday that I realized just how much meal-prepping could change my life for the better.

Taking the time to nurture myself by creating a menu, shopping for ingredients, and preparing foods turned out to be a radical form of self-care: I now find that the more conscious I am of my dietary choices, the more in-touch I feel with my body and the happier I am.

While it may be a bit challenging to start a meal-prep routine, it’s totally worth it. Once you make the effort, you’ll see that each meal yields infinite possibilities. Plus, you save loads of money.

Making your meals in one long stretch is also a creative way to practice mindfulness. Slowing down and meditating on the texture of my food (say, a strawberry’s coating of tiny seeds and ripples) suddenly gives me a sense that everything is linked— the earth, the gardens, the people that grow our foods, my health. I crave that meaning, that awareness, and that connection to my food.

Looking to join the ranks of many joyful meal preppers but don’t know where to start? Here are some of my no-frills methods—hopefully they will inspire you to give it a shot!

The Logistics

Learning to make a variety of meals that will last a full week (and working to stretch the capacity of each dollar) takes a good amount of planning and patience. The biggest challenge for me? Staying organized. With meal prepping, it’s essential to always have all your ingredients on hand. Going to the grocery store for a forgotten item wastes precious time and distracts from the process. My solution: I use my phone to make a shopping list that I update continuously. It includes both pantry staples I’m running low on, as well as foods I need for the week ahead.

Since I usually cook several dishes for the week ahead, I use my phone to set separate alarms for each item— this helps the process go smoothly. I time out how long each item will take to be ready, and then cook the dishes that take the longest first.

So, what do my meals look like? I tend to prefer a simple Mediterranean-inspired diet, with lots of grains, greens, lean proteins (like fish and chicken), legumes, and olive oil.

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Breakfast

find that mornings are the most challenging time of the day to eat healthy, given I’m always rushing around. Especially Monday mornings. Meal prep is a life saver for anyone who tends to get caught unintentionally skipping breakfast. 

While many meal-preppers praise fresh granolas and all kinds of chia puddings carefully placed into Pinterest-perfect, photo-ready Mason jars, I’m not in this for the social media stardom.

I keep breakfast nice and simple, with lots of fresh fruit, like fresh pineapple, guava, and blueberries or strawberries. I chop up and portion out these tropical fruits (one cup of fruit per breakfast) and then stash them in round, glass Tupperware containers.

Dinner & Lunch

I use a crockpot to make the bulk of my lunches and dinners. I always start my crockpot dish before everything else, as they take the most time to cook. My favorite recipes are white bean soup, butternut squash stew, a white bean turkey chili, and “Cincinnati Style” chili. I dream of having two, or even three, crockpots going at all times.

Base Ingredients

After I get the crockpot going, I prepare—on the stove top—whole grains, which act as a base for other meals and can also be added to salads. Using grains in my dishes helps me save money and diversify my diet, since grains (and beans and legumes) are pennies per portion.

Polenta, rice, and steel-cut oats are all cost-effective and delicious, and quinoa is a staple in most of my meals, as are French Green lentils, which I spoon upon salads. I usually portion out a half cup of grains for each of my meals, and store them in glass Tupperware containers.

Related: The Instant Pot Is A Meal Prep Master—And These 6 Recipes Prove It

Salads

I love and live off of salads. To save time, I buy bags of julienned carrots and triple-washed boxed greens. Pro-tip: Arugula, kale, and spinach keep the best.

On Sundays, I portion out five days’ worth of salads, starting with five separate handfuls of greens. Then I prep and portion out the toppings (about one quarter to one half cup per topping). Once assembled, each salad is a ready-to-go meal, sans dressing and toppings. (Keep the dressing and toppings in small glass Tupperware containers or baggies.)

I want each salad I enjoy to be slightly different, so I shop in the bulk section to purchase nuts, seeds, and other healthy toppings like dried fruits. I love coupling candied pecans, crumbled walnuts, halved hazelnuts, or shaved almonds with crumbled goat cheese, dried cranberries or cherries (or fresh blueberries or strawberries, when in-season), and thinly-sliced red onions.

For protein and an energy boost, I also top my salads with chopped roasted chicken (about three ounces). Or, I add a can of sardines for a dose of heart-healthy omega-3s. Sometimes I add freshly-cooked and seasoned chickpeas, fresh from the crockpot).

Veggies and Peppers

Root vegetables—like carrots, fennel, beets, and potatoes—take the longest to cook. Each week I roast a huge tray of beets and a bunch of vegetables (which I later eat chopped on a salad or on a bed of rice or quinoa).

Faster-cooking peppers, zucchini, yellow and summer squashes, asparagus, onion, and garlic take less time, so I cook them later on during my Sunday meal prep session.

Pro-tip: Heating everything in the oven at once saves time and energy, and keeps the kitchen cool in the hot summer months.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

I Had My Thyroid Removed—Here’s How I Stay Healthy Now

In the spring of 2014, my allergies hit me hard—or so I thought. I was constantly stuffy, was plagued by ear pain and pressure (which I just attributed to the fact that I was blowing my nose so much), and had a raspy voice. But I was a busy working, single mom, so I just took my usual OTC medications and waited for my symptoms to pass with my son’s little league season.

A month later, though, I still felt awful and was relieved that my yearly checkup with my internist was coming up. The appointment started out as it normally did: My blood pressure and weight were perfect and I had no problems to report except for allergies. But things took a turn when my doctor felt around my neck and under my jaw and noticed a grape-sized lump.

From there, things happened at warp speed. An ultrasound soon revealed that I had a four-centimeter tumor covering the right lobe of my thyroid gland, which turned out to be a follicular variant of papillary carcinoma, and that I needed surgery to remove the entire gland. A few months after that, I’d have to swallow a radioactive iodine pill to take care of any remaining cancer cells.

People told me thyroid cancer was a ‘good’ cancer, because if found and treated early, I wouldn’t die. (Thyroid cancer has a survival rate of nearly 97 percent after five years, and I’m almost at my five-year mark as I write this.) However, having just lost a vital gland and gained a lifetime of medication, invasive tests, and doctor appointments, I didn’t quite see it that way. Post-thyroidectomy would require a lifetime of surveillance—not to mention anxiety about cancer returning.

I also didn’t realize just how important my thyroid was until it was gone. You see, this butterfly-shaped gland is like your body’s battery; the hormones it stores and produces affect the function of every organ in your body. Your thyroid regulates your metabolism and influences everything from your weight to your energy levels to your body temperature to your mood—and it’s hard to be a good mom, professional, and human being when you’re exhausted and depressed.

Related: Could You Have A Thyroid Issue?

Before having my thyroid removed, I weighed a healthy 119 pounds at five-foot-four, was clear-headed, energetic, and happy, and I slept well. I loved chasing my son around the park, taking our pup hiking, working out, and dating. I ate a healthy diet but didn’t have to worry about weight gain if I indulged in foods like bread or pasta. I had a fine-tuned metabolism and was always on-the-go!

With my thyroid gone, though, I had to start taking a drug called Synthroid (which is synthetic thyroid hormone) every morning, two hours before having any coffee or food—and I quickly learned that replacing a vital gland with a drug would be a roller-coaster of a science experiment.

Sure, I was alive—but I had no quality of life.

Immediately after my surgery, I was put on a very high dose to suppress my thyroid-stimulating hormone (which is the pituitary gland’s signal to the thyroid to get working) so cancer cells couldn’t grow back. I felt hot and red-faced, had night sweats and anxiety, and was constantly drained. Even though my diet did not change, I started to gain weight—and my fatigue made it difficult to exercise regularly. My confidence plummeted. I had to buy all new jeans. Some days I just wanted to hide under my covers.

After six months, my doctor lowered my Synthroid dose—a lot—because my bloodwork said I was in the normal range for someone without a thyroid. But I didn’t feel normal at all.

Now I was chilly, constantly covered in goosebumps, forgetful, and still depressed—not to mention my hair was falling out, my legs retained water and looked puffy, and my skin had become ruddy and red. I easily lost track of what I was doing and felt tired after a full night of sleep. The weight gain continued (20 pounds total) and I felt like I was 85, not 35. Frustrated and angry, I started cutting calories in an attempt to shed those pounds, but that only sabotaged my metabolism more.

Sure, I was alive—but I had no quality of life. For two and a half years, three different doctors did little more than tell me I was fine. Frustrated and angry, I put my background in health journalism to use to find myself the best doctor I could.

I got an appointment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City with an endocrinologist named Dr. Laura Boucai, who not only specializes in thyroid cancer maintenance, but in quality of life after thyroid cancer. For the first time, a doctor really sympathized with me, and I spent much of that first appointment crying. I was used to being shushed, reminded that I didn’t have a deadly cancer, and told to deal with my ‘new normal.’

After an ultrasound and blood work, Dr. Boucai determined my thyroid levels were way too high and my Synthroid needed to be adjusted fast. She also told me that my lifestyle was just as important as my prescription and that I’d have to stick to a few new rules, like drinking lots of water, exercising every single day, and being careful with carbs.

I had no idea how I’d make it all happen. After all, not only was I dealing with my major health problems, but I was also raising my son solo, rushing him to his math tutor and following his social calendar, and working full-time. My doctor made me realize, though: I didn’t have a choice. It was time to get tough!

Attitude was everything; not feeling sorry for myself made all the difference.

So I stopped putting sugar in my coffee, saved pasta (gluten-free) for Sundays only, started wrapping sandwiches in lettuce, and stuck to nuts and raw fruits and veggies for snacks instead of my usual salty pretzels and pita chips. I also committed to exercising at a challenging pace for an hour every single day—a major step up from my usual four weekly workouts.

Meal planning helped a lot. Every Sunday night, I cooked a huge batch of grilled chicken and quinoa salad with peppers, kale, and a sprinkle of feta. I also stocked my fridge with Greek yogurt, tuna packets, cold bean salad, and a pitcher of lemon water. Not having to think about what I was going to eat made it easier to stay on track with my busy schedule.

And when I dropped my son off at soccer practice in the evenings I hit the track for a fast-paced walk or run and ran up and down the bleachers. I also rekindled my friendship with the elliptical in our apartment complex’s gym, and started walking and hiking with our golden retriever again. I joined a barre studio (talk about burn and sweat!) and bought tennis rackets for my son and me.

Throughout the next four months, I lost 14 pounds, gained back my confidence, and started feeling like my old self again. Attitude was everything; not feeling sorry for myself made all the difference.

My new, simple outlook on life is this: Something terrible happened to me, but it will not define me. Sure, I’ll always have to have my blood-work and Synthroid dose checked every few months, but I finally have the energy and drive to really live. And that scar on my neck? It’s barely visible anymore, but I like it. It’s a battle scar that reminds me I’ve been there, conquered that.

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I Have The WORST Allergies—Here’s How I Manage Them Naturally

I wasn’t always allergic to life. As a kid, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I tumbled through nature and its millions of spores, motes, and pollen on a daily basis, climbing trees and digging holes. And I never once had any allergies. We always kept pets in our house, and my tabby cat Tigger slept in my bed with me every night. I rode horses. I gardened. I was a child of nature.

Fast forward to age 12: All of that peacefulness screeched to a halt—or, came out as a sneeze, really. During the spring of seventh grade, I had such bad hay fever symptoms that my teacher would sit me in the back of class by myself, along with a box of tissues and a personal garbage can.

I was sneezing non-stop, eyes puffy and running. I felt like my throat had been replaced by a hornet’s nest. The only thing my mother knew to do was pump me full of Benadryl. But for me, the medicine was a coma-inducer: I’d experienced slurred speech, brain fog, and an immediate need to lay down and sleep the whole thing off. No joke.

At the allergist, they prodded me with 20 different needles, testing me for allergies to cat dander, tree pollen, dust mites, and much more. Nineteen of my 20 testing sites flared up in angry, itchy bumps, like mosquito bites with an agenda. The results were in: I was allergic to everything there was to be allergic to. (The one thing I was immune to? Bee stings.) Oh, and I’d developed allergy-induced asthma as part and parcel of the deal.

My doctor recommended immunization, a method of injecting small amounts of allergens into a patient to slowly immunize them to the supposed invader. I say “supposed” invader because that’s kind of what allergies are: Your body thinks that everything’s an attacking enemy, so it sends out distress signals, sort of like soldiers to the front line. Your body is constantly at war, but with nothing at all.

Along with the allergy shots, I was prescribed what has now become an over-the-counter treatment of loratadine, and then later fexofenadine, and a whole litany of other antihistamines. I also started using a rescue inhaler, slept with plastic bed casings, stopped cuddling with my cat, and limited my time outdoors.

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The thing was, none of those treatments completely worked. I didn’t have constant hay fever symptoms anymore, but if I came into contact with any allergens, like cats or dust or pollen, my symptoms returned—often with hives and wheezing. We then tried isolating foods to see if it was a food allergy. It wasn’t.

Fast forward to my adult years. I decided I didn’t want to take daily allergy pills or immunization shots anymore so I started doing research on natural remedies. I went to the natural food store and stocked up on raw, local honey, which my doc said might work. I took a little bit of it every day.

The idea is that local honey comes into contact with the flora that is native to where you live, so by ingesting some of it every day, you’re slowly immunizing yourself against local allergens. I can’t say for certain whether or not it was the honey (research on using local honey for allergies is mixed), but my seasonal challenges significantly decreased over time. Plus, it tasted delicious.

Related: 7 Natural Ways To Survive Allergy Season

On top of the honey, I also take daily probiotics. A healthy gut is essential to a healthy immune system and I truly think they’ve helped keep my symptoms somewhat at bay.

I’ve stopped trying to avoid allergens everywhere I go, mostly because it’s nearly impossible! I still live with a cat, I go outdoors, and I threw out all the plastic bed casings that my doctor recommended earlier on (I don’t know if you’ve tried sleeping with a plastic pillow case under your cloth pillow case, but let me tell you, it’s ridiculously slippery and uncomfortable, and makes you feel like a hospital patient.) Essentially, I’ve re-introduced myself to the world.

So what’s the conclusion? Though my symptoms have improved, I still have allergies. I still get attacks, often in the forms of hives and wheezing, but they pass. If it’s really bad, I’ll take an over the counter pill and use my rescue inhaler. It’s not a terrible price to pay for being able to snuggle with my cat and take in a deep, fresh breath of air.

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I Tried Online Therapy—Here’s Why I Stuck With It

Getting to the doctor can be pretty nerve-wracking for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for me. I live with two co-occurring autoimmune diseases, along with generalized anxiety disorder. I also work full-time at a university library. In short, I’m tired.

Dragging my fatigued body to and from the doctor’s office is not exactly high up on my list of things I want to be doing, but therapy, for me, isn’t optional. So, when my psychiatrist started offering telemedicine (a fancy word for digital doctor appointments), I quickly took her up on the option.

Telemedicine doesn’t require much tech-savviness at all. To meet, my doctor uses a third-party telemedicine client, Chiron Health, which simply emails me a link to her calendar and to our appointment information. After I pay my copay (which is the same, for me, as an in-person appointment), it takes me to a teleconference screen where we can both see each other and talk to each other in real time.

There’s no noticeable lag in sound or video and we’ve only had technical issues once. Plus, I can access all of this using my phone, which has saved me on days that I’m unexpectedly not near a computer.

All of that is a real win, but at first, I was worried that there could be issues with the lack of in-person contact.

Would she still be able to read my body language? Would my symptoms be less apparent because she could only see part of my body? Would we meet as often? Was I still going to get the same quality of care as before?

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In time, the answers became clear: If anything, the quality has improved. We meet more frequently now because this option has eliminated many physical and psychological access barriers. I’m even more inclined to make and keep visits because I know how easy it will be.

The video range is also generous. My doctor can see my entire upper body, whether I’m wringing my hands or getting weepy.

Above all, telemedicine allows me to remain in the comfort of my own home or office without having to waste precious time getting to and from the doctor’s. Even setting up the appointment is easier: I rarely have to call her office.

I’ve always felt like I’ve been chasing a sense of calm. With the exception of my therapist, doctors have only ever caused me anxiety—but telemedicine has been like salve on that wound.

When I leave a session, I can breathe. I come away feeling like I’ve addressed my mental health without the stress of logistics, and can immediately get back to work. It’s like a recalibration.

Of course, telemedicine is not a catch-all. If I need bloodwork done, for example, I still need to go see my primary care doctor.

Related: 6 Supps That Enhance Your Memory And Help You Focus

There’s also a level of personal accountability that is necessary when it comes to using telemedicine. For example, it works for me because I know my body and am in sync with my wellness. I’m keenly aware of my ups and downs and I know how to communicate this without the physical proximity. Where others may need the in-person treatment, for me it removes barriers.

The option of logging onto my phone and talking to my doctor allows me to focus more on the issues I actually need to talk about, as opposed to the stress of getting there and rearranging my schedule to accommodate travel time.

It’s so, so important to find the right ways to heal ourselves—whether that means seeing a doctor in person or using your phone to keep on top of your well-being. It’s nice to have options, and I personally prefer digital therapy.