Monday, March 29, 2010

Race for Autism — (March 27, 2010)

Today our whole family participated in the Race for Autism in Balboa Park, San Diego. We ran for a cause that is near and dear to our hearts as our oldest child, Nolan, is autistic and has been wonderfully served by the community—including programs which have been directly or indirectly assisted by the National Foundation for Autism Research (NFAR), the lead sponsor of this annual event.

We believe that exercise is a crucial component to minding our health and we want to influence our children by helping them see its importance. Here’s the story about how it all went down…

Dan’s Story—

I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m., knowing it was mostly unnecessary because our kids have this blessed habit of waking by 5 o’clock. Sure enough, by 5 the boys were awake going through scenes of their favorite cartoons and stories, each taking their roles from the comforts of their own beds. Of course, since they sleep just across the hall from Maria and me, I heard every word of it. Nice.

I tossed and turned a little, trying to block their voices from my head to soak up the final half hour of sleep due to me, but mostly failed since I was worried the whole time they’d wake their sister earlier than she needed to be awoken.

The clock turned to 5:26… :27… :28… :29… and I thought, ah, forget it… I let the alarm ring, hit the snooze to give Maria an extra ten minutes, and got up to release the hounds.

I started on breakfast for the boys. We needed to be out of the house by 6:45 to make the 8 a.m. start time for the race without having to worry too much about parking. Berkeley woke up about 10 minutes later, followed by Maria. Our house was at full steam and it was still pitch black outside! (Typically morning in the Lai household, actually.)

“What are we doing today?” they asked.

“We have to eat breakfast and get dressed! Today’s—“ I started, when Jackson finished my sentence.

“We’re racing?”

That’s right. As soon as we changed over the kid’s hallway calendar to March, we immediately marked today’s date, Saturday, March 27, 2010, as “A Special Day.” Everyday they’d point to the marked day and ask what it was. And everyday we’d tell them, “That’s the day we’re running in a race. And if you finish, you’ll win a medal.” Everyone would get that wonderful, beautiful smile on their face.

Breakfast was done and it was time to get dressed. Each of our kids was entered in the 1-Mile Family Walk and had official bibs. They were so excited to get to put on their shirts with their numbers attached because they all remembered that morning back in January when mom was dressed and ready to go for the Carlsbad Half Marathon. They, especially Jackson, saw her number and her finisher’s medal and wanted nothing more than to get a medal of their own. The Vancouver Winter Olympics then followed, and they were raring to go with medal fever!

Today was their day. And—what do you know?—it would also turn out to be our day too.

The kids got to hang out with their aunt Elsa (Maria’s sister) at the resource fair, doing crafts and picking up all sorts of free stuff, while we ran the timed 5K race. The course is a loop through beautiful Balboa Park. It’s an interesting loop, however, because it truly feels like it’s entirely uphill—impossible for a loop, but it really feels that way! It was a great day for Maria and me. We both ran our hearts out to our own personal records. Sure, she beat me by 34 seconds, but who’s counting? I blame the final hill. (She must have found a short cut or tunnel or something!)

After finishing, we met up with Elsa and the kids and walked over to the start line for the 1-Mile Family Walk. As we started out, Jackson wanted to know why nobody was running. I told him we were saving ourselves for the end. He seemed okay with the explanation.

By the half-mile mark, we could tell the kids were getting antsy walking so slow. So I started prepping them for our final dash to the finish. That seemed to perk them up a little and the excitement was starting to build. I found a suitable “start” line for me and the kids halfway across the Cabrillo Bridge and lined us all up.


Surprisingly, Nolan, our laziest, err, “mellowest” of the three immediately bolted to the lead, weaving between walkers and strollers and leashes and dogs. We turned the corner where the route flanked a grassy slope. It was too much temptation for a spectacular morning in San Diego, so Nolan went off course and straight down the hill, doing laps around a giant oak. Jackson went chasing after and Berkeley, who was running beside me, started that direction when I called down for the boys to get back on course.

It took about three or four tries, but I finally got them back on course. Jackson and Berkeley took off and rounded the hairpin for the finish line. Nolan took his time returning to the course and ended up squandering his early lead, finishing in third. For him, I blame the temptation of a grassy slope.

It was truly an awesome morning running for Autism—running for our son—and running for our own health and the health of our children.

We believe in setting an example for the importance, fun, and excitement of exercise and physical fitness.

Throughout the week, they see their mom get dressed and ready for her pre-work morning run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then on Saturdays, we usually all go out to wherever it is she’s training for her long run. I usually take the kids out to breakfast after dropping off Maria and then we mess around wherever it is she’s running (hopefully, the beach!) that day. We hope our children are developing an appreciation for the discipline involved with exercise and being healthy while also finding it fun and invigorating.

Maria’s Story—

There I stood at the start line with my Moms in Motion (MIM) buddy Michele and my hubby. I was so excited to be running with Dan but also terrified since I had not been training for a 5K distance. I’m usually trying to pace myself for longer distances like half marathons (13.1 miles) and haven’t practiced getting a fast time for the shorter 5K runs (3.1 miles). As the National Anthem played, I have to admit I got misty-eyed thinking about my son Nolan. He has come a long way and I am so proud of him. During the race I encountered other fellow MIM gals and exchanged some words with them as I huffed and puffed my way to the finish line. I know I didn’t set any course records today, but I ran my heart out and set my own personal record.

I love running because it is such a rewarding sport—with hard work you can always improve. I love the thrill of going faster and farther.

My kids know that running is very important to me. Every morning Berkeley asks me, “Where are you going today?” as I stagger to the kitchen to fetch my morning coffee. She knows that I will either be getting in my car to go for a run or heading to the back house to weight lift and cross train. She always wants to play with me first thing in the morning but never gives me a hard time for leaving to go exercise. Nolan was actually baffled when I didn’t run for almost the entire month of February when I was recovering from pneumonia. He even ordered me to go run several times, saying things like, “But you like running, mommy.” It is nice to know that my children understand the importance of exercise and adhering to a training schedule.

As parents, our most important task is to set a good example for our children. The best thing I can do to help ensure my kids will live a healthy active life is to SHOW them how to do it. Do as I do, not only as I say.


We’d like to give a special thanks to everyone who joined our team—House of Lai—by running with us, making a donation on behalf of our team, or doing both. Thanks to Elsa Chira (Maria’s sister) for walking with us and watching our lovely kids while Maria and I ran. It’s rare that we ever get to run together; so it was a real treat and blessing to get to do so. Thanks to Michele Price, our son Nolan’s first Sunday School teacher and who also is part of the Moms In Motion running group that Maria’s a part of, for her running with us and donating to the cause. Michele also got a personal record today—great job! Thanks to Adrienne Wadel and her daughter Madeline for joining our team in the 5K walk. What a beautiful sight to see mother and daughter walking together. Thanks to Jace David Hilemon who had to miss the race—after all, he’s just 364 days old and needs his sleep whenever he can get it. Your grandparents Kevin and Sylvia Miller have great expectations for you, buddy! And thanks to our newest nephew and youngest team member at four months of age, Lucas Romo. We’re sure you have your mom (Maria’s sister Diana) and dad doing enough running around for all of us.

For more information about the Race for Autism, see their website at or the website for the National Foundation for Autism Research at

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bread and Whole Grains

The mid-1990s started us through some dark times. It was then that we joined the Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution and swore off all the carbohydrates our will power would allow—we did especially well with bread. No matter how much we wanted it, we took up the mantra that bread was pure evil in tender, soft, fluffy form. So we did away it completely.

It really was a revolutionary time for us. Suddenly we were free to order fast food without the guilt. As long as it was a lettuce-wrapped burger and not loaded with sugary barbecue sauce, we were good to go. Eating out at Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, and all the rest of the long list of chain “American” restaurants was pure and simple: steak or chicken, no bread, hold the potatoes, double the veggies. Instant Atkins approved meal!

Did we lose weight like the doctor promised? We sure did! So we were indeed on to something here in regards to the carbs, but something also seemed very wrong about this new diet revolution we were on. Could bread really be so bad for you that you’d instantly gain weight just by walking past a bakery? Also, though we don’t have a clear understanding for it, we always felt a little off-kilter after our Atkins meals. We felt full without feeling settled—sort of “incomplete.” Also, we didn’t do much exercise during this time—I’m not sure if it’s because this diet didn’t provide enough energy, or if it was just Wisconsin. Either way, something just felt a little “off” and unsustainable about this diet.

Though we still held onto the core teaching that carbs (especially breads) were bad and to be avoided whenever possible, we were feeling deprived. So we looked for ways to sneak bread back into our diets.

As we started to read and learn more about carbohydrates and whole grains, a veil was lifted and we could see clearly for the first time. We learned that the key to eating carbs is to eat the right ones—the ones that have been least processed.

Grains and the Refining Process—

Grains are composed of three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The bran is the grain’s outer shell and contains most of the grain’s fiber plus B-vitamins, zinc, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Next is the endosperm, the large white part of the grain, which contains the bulk of the carbohydrates and is the least nutritious part of the grain. Finally, the germ is the innermost part of the grain; it’s the grain’s powerhouse, containing B-vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to reduce rates of heart disease.

Refining grains removes the bran and the germ, leaving us the nutrient-deficient (and fat-inducing) white endosperm. So if we know that refining strips away the nutrients, why is it done? It's because the Omega-3 fatty acids in the germ cause whole grains to go rancid quickly. By refining out the bran and the germ, flour is able to sit on shelves for months. This longer shelf life is clearly a benefit to flour millers and the food industry, as their products will survive the long haul from mill to factory to store to pantry. But it is of little benefit to our bodies as a food product.

What’s the benefit of eating whole grains?

First, a crash course on simple versus complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbs cause a blood sugar and insulin spike in the body. The insulin then goes running around the body bringing carbohydrates (energy) to the muscles. When the muscles don't need the energy, insulin stores the stuff away as fat that can be converted back into energy during lean times. We Americans, however, suffer very few lean times, if any. There always seems to be plenty of carbs to go around.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, do not cause an insulin spike because the body must first break down the complex carbs into simple ones. The digestion process is slowed down.

All grains are by definition complex carbohydrates, which the body converts into simple carbohydrates, or sugar. The fiber in whole grains, besides keeping your bowels regular, gives the body more to work on during digestion, thereby slowing down the rate that complex carbs are converted into simple ones. The fiber also helps you feel full for a longer time after meals.

The problem with refined grains, or refined flour, is that much of the vitamins and fiber have been removed from the grain. The remaining starch is almost instantly converted into simple carbohydrates, causing the previously mentioned insulin spike. So in essence, eating pure refined flour is almost as good (or bad) as eating sugar itself—your body gets a sugar rush, you're full for a bit, then your blood sugar comes crashing down and, guess what, you're hungry again.

[You know the old saying about how you’re hungry again just a couple hours after eating Chinese food? Well, it’s true. You see, most of us, when having a Chinese meal, load up on white rice (or noodles) along with the more sugary meal choices such as Kung Pao Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Honey Glazed Shrimp, and so on. All that sugar, along with the white rice—which is really just refined brown rice—or noodles (refined flour) are simple carbs and do very little to keep us full. A cup of brown rice has 3.5 grams of fiber, while its refined white counterpart has less than 1 gram.]

What to look for when buying bread—

There are a few basic rules to buying quality whole grain bread:
  1. It must say it’s 100% “whole.” If the first ingredient is “enriched flour,” do yourself a favor and put it back on the shelf. This heavily refined flour has been “enriched” because all the nutrients have been stripped away when the refineries took out the bran and germ. It might seem like you’re eating a higher quality bread because of the enrichment, but they’re really just putting back what was taken out in the first place, minus the fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids. 
  2. The fewer the ingredients, the better. Bread is a very simple food. It’s just flour, water, yeast, and sometimes sugar or honey. Be suspicious of breads with ingredients lists that read like the periodic table of elements. Most likely those chemicals are either preservatives or agent to make the bread unnaturally soft or smooth or sweet or who knows what.
  3. Watch out for high fructose corn syrup. If you must have bread that is sweetened, choose one sweetened with honey or sugar. More on this in a later blog, but high fructose corn syrup should be on your naughty list. It’s just empty calories that will mess up your metabolism.
The bread we are currently eating at home is Trader Joe’s Harvest Whole Wheat Bread. It contains only seven ingredients: stone ground whole wheat flour, filtered water, honey, cracked wheat, sea salt, fresh yeast, and whey. It is surprisingly soft and does not feel and taste like you’re eating a chunk of cardboard. Our 8-year-old son Nolan even likes it, having it with peanut butter everyday at school.

Just for comparison (and indigestion) sake, here are the ingredients for Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth (made with) Whole Grain White Bread: Enriched bleached flour [wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid], water, whole grains [whole-wheat flour, brown rice flour (rice flour, rice bran)], high-fructose corn syrup, whey, wheat gluten, yeast, cellulose, honey, calcium sulfate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cotton-seed oils), salt, butter (cream, salt), dough conditioners (may contain one or more of the following: mono-and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, ascorbic acid, enzymes, azodicarbonamide), guar gum, calcium propionate (preservative), distilled vinegar, yeast nutrients (monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate), corn starch, natural flavor, beta-carotene (color), Vitamin D3, soy lecithin, soy flour.

First, did you notice that the label is careful to say “made with Whole Grain”? Whole grain is the fourth ingredient out of 24 ingredients in this bread. There are actually much more ingredients if you count all the individual additives to things like the enriched flour, dough conditioners, and yeast nutrients. If you whittle your way down the list, you’ll notice the high-fructose corn syrup and then a little further down something called cellulose. Cellulose is typically used in the food industry as a means of increasing the fiber content of bread. Sounds good, but keep in mind that cellulose is derived from wood pulp and cotton—it’s no wonder it’s indigestible. Yum!

We hope this will help you give whole grain breads—real bread—a try.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hot Dog! (Enter the Nitrite-Free Zone)

We hit a culinary milestone in our household last week – our home is officially a Nitrite-Free Zone!

“Who wants hot dogs?!”

“I do!” – “I do!” – “I do!”

“I want three!” That would be Jackson, our family foodie who can smell and taste the subtlest of ingredients.

“You can have two,” I said. “And when you finish those, we’ll decide.”

Then I placed a plate in front of each kid and stood back, fingers crossed. You see, last week, without warning the kids, we switched our hot dogs from Hebrew National (a doggone good dog by any standard, including the “Higher Standard”) to an uncured nitrite-free version from Trader Joe’s.

Berkeley, 4-years old, wasn’t in a hot dog mood, so she passed and had something else.

Nolan, 8, chomped down and never looked back. Interesting…

Then Jackson (photo at left), 6, our resident food critic, took a bite. Slowly chewing and eventually swallowing, he had this inquisitive look in his eyes. Uh oh…

“This tastes different,” he said, after putting the bun and hot dog back on his plate. “Dad, taste it.”

“What—what do you mean?” I said as I looked to Maria, the both of us staring at each other with eyes wide open and teeth clenched.

“It’s spicy,” he said.

I took a bite, my first bite actually, since I didn’t bother to try it before serving. And what do you know? Jackson was right. It did taste different. A little spicy even. Darn!

But I really wanted this experimental switch-a-roo to stick, so I said, “Mmmmm… it’s goo-ood! Mommy bought these special hot dogs just for you, Jackson. They’re so-oo good!”

He took another bite.

All the while, I kept talking about what a wonderful and special hot dog mommy had bought just for the kids whom she loves so-oo much.

Then another bite.

Hmm… this is working! He’s not rejecting it.

Two minutes, two and a half hot dogs later, the experiment was a success!

So what’s the big deal about regular hot dogs, Hebrew National, even? The problem is the preservatives – especially, sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite reacts with amines present in meat to form nitrosamines, a known carcinogen which has been associated with cancer of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, bladder, and even the brain.

Nitrites were originally added to meats in your grocery store’s deli section—we’re talking cured meats, lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, almost every meat that’s not considered fresh meat—to combat botulism poisoning and preserve the red “fresh” color of the meat. With today’s modern refrigeration methods, however, there is no longer a need for the sodium nitrite to prevent disease. True, the color of the meat may be somewhat closer to brown than red, but at what cost?

A study (Peters et al) of kids is Los Angeles County done from 1980-1987, found a relationship between eating hot dogs with an increase in leukemia in children from birth to 10 years old. They found that eating 12 hot dogs per month put children at nine times the risk of developing childhood leukemia. Other studies have even shown that mothers who ate hot dogs one or more times a week during pregnancy increased the risk of that child developing brain tumors.

But what about the nitrites naturally existent in vegetables, especially spinach, celery, and green lettuce? How is it that consumption of these veggies has actually been linked to preventing cancer? It turns out that these veggies also contain vitamins C and D, which actually inhibit the formation of nitrosamines, the cancer causing agent. So now federal regulations require that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) be added to all cured meats using sodium nitrite as a preservative.

Sounds like a problem solved, right? Well… maybe. But our “gut” reaction is why are we adding all this extra stuff to what’s supposed to be just meat?

We’ve decided that we would rather not take the risk of eating food that may look good on the shelves—unnaturally preserved to last far longer on store shelves than reason and our own stomachs will allow—and have chosen to seek out nitrite-free meats.

This is not a drastic lifestyle change. We are not saying that our children will never have another hot dog outside the house. Not to mention pizza with pepperoni, sausage, or Canadian bacon. You’ll pretty much find nitrites everywhere prepared (cured) meats are. But we can’t avoid eating out for the rest of our lives. After all, we have our requisite trips to Legoland and Disneyland. What we can control is what we choose to bring into our home to serve to our family. Also, just being aware is good enough to help us make better choices. Maybe we don’t have to eat out as often. Maybe we pack a healthier snack instead. Or maybe we can hold off eating until later, when we can feed our family with better choices.

As of last week, we were able to find nitrite-free hot dogs (and bacon) at Trader Joe’s, but not any of the large supermarkets nearby. However, we were able to find smoked turkey deli meat at Albertson’s that was nitrite-free; it both tasted and looked just fine.

We wish you all the best and hope this helps you take a small step toward minding yours and your children’s health!

I have to run now. Jackson is asking for more hot dogs.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Why do the experts keep changing what is considered healthy? One day, wine is bad for you. The next, it’s recommended on a daily basis. And coffee—is it good or bad? Then there’s the low-fat versus low-carb debate. What are we supposed to believe?

So, this is our quest to find out what is truly healthy for our bodies so we can thrive and live as God intended. Since we were kids, there have been so many changes to what we eat and consider to be "food." We went from drinking regular soda to diet soda, from sugar to high fructose corn syrup to saccharine to aspartame to sucralose to "new" natural sweeteners like agave nectar and stevia. We went from cooking with lard and butter to Crisco, margarine, and various other engineered products. And on one of our recent trips to a health food store, we came across a line of salad dressings that had no fat, no calories, no nothing. Then what’s in it?

Through our research, reading, and personal experience, we hope we’ve found a way of living—eating and playing—that is both healthy and sustainable as a permanent lifestyle. We will cover topics such as diets, sweeteners, preservatives, fats, organic foods, kitchenware, and exercise.

We hope you find this inspiring, entertaining, and useful in helping you make healthful decisions. And we hope this will make it easier for you to “mind your health.”

First, a little something about us…

Maria’s Story—

About a year ago I decided to stop all the dieting and be happy with my current weight. Well that though lasted for about a day. Why should I be happy with my current weight when I knew it wasn’t a healthy weight? Why should I compromise? Plus, I looked in the mirror and I knew I was not happy. It was time to make a change. So I decided to get healthy.

On September 7, 2008, I started running and reading all the health information I could get my hands on. I wanted to learn how to eat right and become a runner. I was done with fad diets and wanted to change my life permanently.

I have always battled to control my weight. In 10th grade I lost a lot of weight—but the starvation, anorexia, and bulimia was just too much for my body to handle. This lasted nine months until I finally collapsed during a practice track meet. Not long after, I was back to the same old battles.

I knew something had to change.

I slowly reintroduced so-called “healthy” low-fat foods but was always fearful I’d eat too much. I had to stay active or I would gain it all back. I continued playing varsity tennis doubles and joined the track and field team doing long jump and high jump. About six months before senior prom, my date and I started running at the local park. (I only ran because I was motivated to lose the weight; after prom I never ran at the park again.)

In college (photo: early Freshman year visiting Griffith Park, Los Angeles), I packed on the “Freshman 15.” I was so ashamed but was way too stressed out to do anything about it. No time for regular exercise and all the high calorie starchy foods in the dining commons did me in. Sure, I would hit the gym every so often but I wasn’t consistent. I had really hit my low point.

Then in medical school, more stress and ridiculously cold Milwaukee winters made it impossible for me to exercise. And since I was on a tight budget, I couldn’t afford to buy meat. So I ate a salad and baked potato almost every night and purchased a Health Rider (you may recall the mid-90s infomercial). It actually worked! I slimmed down for my wedding, though not as much as I would have liked.

After we got married and had that extra income, we were able to eat out more. Yippee! We ate like kings—lots of fried foods, beer, frozen custard, and pretty regular late night snacking.

During my endocrine rotation, everybody was talking about the Atkins diet. I gave it a try, taking my husband along for the ride. We did this religiously for awhile.

Then in residency, the highly restrictive Atkins diet got to me so I tried the South Beach Diet for a few years. When I got my first job as a physician in private practice, I discovered the Abs Diet and I did that for about two years. I followed that with Weight Watchers for about 18 months. But no matter what diet I was on, I couldn’t keep the weight off. It was so frustrating!

After reading several books this year, I decided to challenge myself to be healthy, not skinny. I also challenged myself to start running, something I knew I was horrible at. But I secretly wanted to truly consider myself a runner.

While this is all a work in progress—and I’m a work in progress, too!—I hope to “mind my health” in the healthiest way possible and live my life to the fullest.

Dan’s Story—

I’ve always been thin. I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted, and mostly what I liked was junk, but I’d still never put on any pounds. Given to my own vices, I could skip meals and hardly eat one day and the very next day could gorge on a massive plate of spaghetti until I was so full I had no choice but to lay down on the floor afterward. And still, I would not tip the scales one way or another. It was just how I was. (photo: 1987, middle school graduation)

I was relatively active, however. I loved biking and would bike for hours on Saturdays, sometimes making the round trip from Huntington Beach to Long Beach with a backpack full of camera equipment. I never packed a lunch during these full-day excursions, and only drank water from drinking fountains along the way. I’ve always been one of those “oops, I forgot to eat” people. But that didn't mean I wouldn't sometimes stop by Carl's Jr. for a Western Bacon Cheeseburger, large fries, and soda just before getting home.

In college I did manage to put on a “Freshman 5-or-so.” My mom said I needed it and was happy to see a little “fat on my face” for a change. What she didn’t know, and what most people wouldn’t have thought just by looking at me, was that I was anything but physically fit. The biking in high school was great, but my true cardiovascular fitness was still lacking.

After moving to Milwaukee to join my bride for her last two years of medical school, I started working and stopped biking altogether. You can’t bike in the snow and the oppressive humidity of the summers just made me want to go to an air-conditioned mall or sip coffee in a bookstore.

When we moved to San Diego for Maria’s residency training and her eventual job here, I once again worked full time and allowed myself the freedom of not exercising while eating a diet rich in carbs, fats, and salt—basically, junk. Eventually, I was 17 pounds heavier than I was at high school graduation. But unless I was at the beach or wearing a very unlikely tight-fitting shirt, nobody would have guessed about the love handles and belly fat I had acquired.

About five years ago I learned that appearance isn’t everything. I looked skinny, but I had excess fat around my waist—this alone put me at an even higher risk for heart disease than if I had that fat more evenly dispersed on my body. The fact that I am Asian further increases my risk. Nice.

At Maria’s urging I had a carotid artery scan that confirmed the early stages of heart disease. On top of that, I also had borderline high blood pressure, putting me at increased risk of stroke. Double nice. I was put on daily cholesterol and blood pressure medications, and I wasn’t even 35 years old! I needed to make some changes.

Now, with Maria’s inspiration and determination, we are making drastically different choices with what we eat and are currently training for several running events this year.