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Tastier than a Gold Medal

31 Jul

If you haven’t noticed, the Olympics are on! London being six hours ahead combined with the Internet being the Internet means that I’ve had almost every swimming event spoiled ahead of time, but it’s still fun to watch the races. Sometimes miss those multi-day swim meets. There’s something about sitting around a gym waiting for your race with a bunch of other chlorine-laden people that fosters camaraderie.

The U.S. has already had some pretty shining performances. Most notable to me was Dana Vollmer’s incredible 100 butterfly gold medal finish with a time of 55.98 seconds! She’s got a pretty wild back story too:

In 2003, at the age of 15, Vollmer was training for a chance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She battled dizzy spells and light-headedness. In addition, her heart rate was abnormally high and would be very slow to return to normal after her training sessions.

Her parents took her to see a doctor, then a cardiologist, and Vollmer was diagnosed with a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia. Without getting into too much medical vernacular, this caused Vollmer’s rapid heart rate.  At the age of 15, Vollmer underwent heart surgery.

However, during the surgery, the doctors found a more daunting issue with her heart. Vollmer had the symptoms of long Q-T Syndrome, which is an abnormality where irregular electrical impulses can be sent to the heart. (From

Rather than undergo more surgery, she elected instead to have an external defibrillator available during training sessions in case of an emergency. She went on to win a gold medal in the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 2004 games, but failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Here she is in 2012 back with a vengeance swimming butterfly like no woman ever has. What a champion!

So it’s only appropriate that Neen’s Notes shares its own favorite little gold medals this week, and that means buttery, nutty blondies. A good friend (also an excellent photographer whose work you can find here) brought me roasted, salted macadamia nuts back from her recent honeymoon trip to Hawaii and I’ve been putting them in everything. Pretty sure Joe is glad that I’ve now gone through the whole bag because he’s so tired of hearing “Oh my god these are the best thing EVER.” I even stowed a few in my pocket for Sunday’s 5.5 mile Reagan airport-and-back run.

I love any baking recipe that makes very few dishes to wash, so I’ve now made these three times. Lest you think I am gluttonous, the latter two batches were donated to coffee time at work.

Gold Medals: Macadamia Nut Brown-Butter Blondies

  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. vanilla butter & nut flavoring (vanilla extract works too, but I love this stuff.)
  • 2/3 cup roasted, salted macadamia nuts
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8 in. square pan with parchment paper or buttered foil. Parchment works a lot better for these, so if you have it use it.

Grind the macadamia nuts in a food processor until they resemble a coarse meal. They’ll stick together a little bit, but don’t process them all the way to a paste.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once it begins to foam, swirl the pan every so often and cook just until it begins to brown. Remove the pot from the heat.

Add the brown sugar to the butter and whisk until thoroughly combined. Resist pouring this directly from the pot into your mouth. Mix in the egg and extract/flavoring until smooth, and then stir in the flour just until no dry spots remain. Fold in 2/3 of the macadamia nuts.

Spread the batter evenly into the prepared pan, top with the remaining nuts, and bake for 25 minutes. The top will look shiny and the edges will be lightly golden. These are fudgier and less cake-y, so don’t be afraid of under baking them too much.

Extremely difficult part: Let the blondies cool in the pan on a wire rack for one hour. Using the parchment paper, gently lift them out of the pan and cool for another 15 minutes before cutting into squares. I’ve found that a long knife with a scalloped edge or a very sharp chef’s knife does the best job.

Now you can enjoy your very own gold medals, and while not as shiny, I can almost guarantee that they will be much tastier than the ones Olympians receive.

“I just swam my brains out, can I please have a snack?”

Enjoy the games everyone!

Ciao for now,


The swimmer in hot water (and why we should cool it down).

6 Feb

In the news this week is one of my very favorite athletes, Michael Phelps. Unfortunately, the reason he is in the news isn’t positive. Pictures surfaced of Phelps that depict him inhaling through a water pipe, a device commonly used to smoke marijuana.

I personally didn’t feel disappointed to hear this news and a lot of people around me were a little shocked that I didn’t think it was a big deal. Those of us who grew up with the D.A.R.E program had it burned into our brains that drugs were bad, dangerous, and only used by mean, awful people. At some point along the way, I found myself very curious as to what the “un-simplified” facts were, and after doing a lot of reading, I became of the opinion that marijuana should be legalized and taxed in a way similar to alcohol.

First there’s the economic impact. An article in the December 18, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times reads, “A report released today by a marijuana public-policy analyst contends the market value of pot produced in the United States exceeds $35 billion — far more than the crop value of such staples as corn, soybeans and hay.”

We are in the midst of an economic crisis. Legalizing and taxing marijuana could save taxpayers an incredible amount of money and invite a new revenue stream into the economy. In fact, according to Dick Startz, Professor of Economics at the University of Washington, “Washington state would save about $105 million a year if we legalized marijuana (U. Washington News, 6/3/05). He adds that, “An extra $100+ million would be nice for the state budget. But an even better economic argument for legalizing marijuana is that it would move the legal line, so that relatively safe drugs like caffeine, alcohol and marijuana are all on one side of the law and the truly dangerous drugs, such as crack and meth, are on the other.”

So it’s not just economically helpful, it almost has a “reverse gateway” effect. And the argument has support from some very well-read and reliable sources. Dr. Jeffrey Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard reported that, “Replacing marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation similar to that used for alcoholic beverages would produce combined savings and tax revenues of between $10 billion and $14 billion per year.” His report was endorsed by over 500 distinguished economists.

Then there’s the medicinal side. A federal report concluded that there was evidence of marijuana being beneficial to those suffering severe nausea and pain. The Institute of Medicine states that there is clear scientific evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of, “cannabinoid drugs, primarily THC, for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.”

In 2007, a group of researchers at Harvard University found that THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, reduced the growth of lung cancer in mice (Forbes Mag., April 17, 2007). A year later, German researchers at the University of Rostock discovered that certain components in marijuana actually inhibit tumor growth, a conclusion also reached by scientists at Compultense University in Madrid in 2000.

A common argument related to the above is that marijuana is harmful to people’s health. According to a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that there was no correlation between marijuana use and three types of cancer. The results surprised Dr. Donald Tashkin, a veteran of marijuana research, who said, “We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use. What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.” Another study published in the Journal of International Neuropsychology found that there was no correlation between long-term, heavy marijuana use and brain damage. Much like Tushkin, lead researcher Dr. Igor Grant was taken aback. “We were somewhat surprised by our finding, especially since there’s been a controversy for some years on whether long-term cannabis use causes brain damage.” What’s important to keep in mind is that both of these studies were done with adults—but I’ll address why that makes a difference later.

And finally, there’s the infamous “Gateway Drug” theory. This has been debunked so many times over that it was hardly worth finding sources for. Over 12 years, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that teen marijuana use had no bearing on later drug or alcohol use. Several other studies that can be found here actually predict quite the opposite. Regular marijuana users do not, in fact, move on to other drugs. What is true is that using marijuana as a teenager can put the individual in contact with others who use and sell other, more dangerous drugs. Legalizing and taxing marijuana then actually closes the “gateway.” There’s no evidence suggesting that prohibition has done anything to curb marijuana use. Still, if I were the one considering how to legalize and tax marijuana, I would prefer it have an age-limit of at least 18. While many studies have debunked the negative effects of marijuana in adults, the effect could be very different for a teenager whose body, particularly the nervous system, is still developing.

But really, the bottom line in all of this is that adults ought to be able to make their own decisions. We let, nay encourage people to overeat (I firmly believe that the 2000 calorie Heath bar milkshake from Baskin Robbins which contains a half-pound of sugar is more dangerous than marijuana) and have legalized a drug (alcohol) which is extremely likely to be abused and is very addictive. What is it then that holds us back from making marijuana legal? Well, the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 wrote that it has a high potential for abuse and no acceptable medical use. I would say that research has come a long way in nearly 40 years, and that such outdated laws need to be revisited in light of overwhelming new evidence that contradicts the Act.

Michael Phelps smoked marijuana, it’s true. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t consider marijuana a banned substance, so there’s no issue as to whether he earned his medals or not. Phelps’ accomplishment is still one of the greatest in sports history, and there’s no reason that kids out there can’t still look at him as a role model. If parents are truly concerned about their children, then they should use this story as an opportunity to talk to them about drugs in an intelligent manner. May I suggest the book It’s Just a Plant: a children’s story of marijuana to get the conversation headed in a healthy direction. It is important that kids know that like alcohol, marijuana isn’t something safe for them. But I also think it’s crucial that the discussion evolve as children become teenagers. “Don’t take drugs because it’s dangerous” is fine for a child because they can’t understand all of the issues, but it’s not right for a teenager. Level with them and say, “Look, these are the facts. When you’re an adult, you’ll have to make your own decision and accept whatever consequences come with that decision.”

I don’t agree with U.S.A. Swimming suspending Phelps from competition for 3 months. I think it’s excessive and unwarranted based on such a small infraction. But until we as a society make a decision to stop demonizing marijuana and see it for what it really is: a plant that could potentially keep cancer cells from growing/help cancer sufferers live better lives, then we’ll never be able to really focus on researching those possible treatments. To ignore the possible benefits based on misconceptions is foolish.

So there’s my two cents (more like 2 dollars…I did go on a bit) on the matter. I don’t really want to take up a ton of space putting my reference list here, but I am glad to direct any of my readers to any of the articles I mentioned in the post. Just leave a comment.

That’s all for now, folks!


Two down, six to go! (Boca loaf inside)

11 Aug

What a weekend! Saturday night, we watched as Michael Phelps claimed his first gold medal in the men’s 400 IM. It was the event he said would be his toughest. Well, he blew past his own world record by 2 seconds and made it look easy. Then, last night Jason Lezak pulled of the comeback of all comebacks to bring the men victory in the 4X100 freestyle relay. It was unbelievable. Coming out of the final turn, he was still nearly a full body-length behind the Frenchman Alain Bernard. Suddenly, it just seemed like something changed inside of Lezak. Barnard hadn’t slowed down. If anything, he was exploding during the last 50 meters. Lezak just wanted it a little more, and his determination paid off when he touched the wall first.

So, thanks to Jason Lezak, Phelps’ quest for 8 gold medals continues. Here’s the list of events with their televised times (ET)

400m IM- August 9 @ 10pm- GOLD
4X100m freestyle relay- August 10 @ 11:01pm- GOLD
200m freestyle- August 11 @ 10:13pm
200m butterfly- August 12 @ 10:18pm
4X200m freestyle relay- August 12 @ 11:16pm
4X50m IM- August 14 @ 1o:45pm
100m butterfly- August 15 @ 10:07pm
4X100 medley relay- August 16 @ 10:55pm

In comparison to the feats of athletics I saw this weekend, my accomplishments were rather small. In my own way, I had some good success. Here’s another vegan loaf recipe that’s a bit more “meaty” tasting.

Cast of Characters:

½ cup almonds (ground to a coarse meal)
2 TB olive oil One onion, diced
One large garlic clove, minced
One large carrot, peeled and grated
Two celery ribs, diced
One red or green pepper, diced
One cup baby bella mushrooms, coarsely chopped
2 cups Boca Ground “meat”
1 cup cooked whole wheat cous cous
1/4 – 1/2 cup vegetable broth
1 teaspoon mixed seasonings (whatever herbs and spices you like)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp. salt

Use the same method as the lentil-veggie loaf and add only as much vegetable broth as is needed to bring the loaf together. This loaf only takes about 40 minutes to cook, although you can leave it in the oven for 5 extra minutes if you want the top to be very crispy. Divided into 8 slices, it comes out to about 116 calories and 10 grams of protein per slice. It is low in fat and carbohydrates too, but I don’t have the numbers with me right now. I’ll post them in the comments later if anyone shows interest.

Here’s me deciding that a fork won’t be necessary…

In other news, I decided on a chocolate protein powder to experiment with. It’s by BSN and it’s called Lean Dessert (in chocolate fudge pudding flavor). It made really good ice cream—yum! I really like it, but I’m still trying out more samples because as powders go, it comes in a little bit low at 20g protein per scoop. I got a sample of Jay Robb’s whey powder at Vitamin Shoppe. That comes in at 25g protein per scoop and they only use milk from cows that have not been given hormones. To me that seems like a good thing. I have enough hormones of my own, thanks.

Also, looks like it’s back to the drawing board on the iron front. Remember that I mentioned I was due for blood work in August? Well, everything came back looking great with the exception of my ferritin (1), iron (9), iron saturation (2), and hematocrit (25%). It’s really hard not to get discouraged. Pushing more red meat into my diet doesn’t exactly thrill me because of the cholesterol factor, so fixing this issue will be about making good choices and creating new ways to sneak iron into recipes.

Safeway sells giant bags of frozen shrimp and scallops. I can toss those into my stir-fries along with vegetables like broccoli and red peppers that aid in iron absorption. I also plan to buy some bran flakes and molasses to make iron muffins. Another thought that crossed my mind was finding some young, mild calves or chicken livers, chopping them finely, and adding that to one of my protein loaves. Like I said, I’m going to have to get creative. It’ll probably mean giving up my beloved protein bars as snacks in exchange for something that is high protein AND high iron, like some tuna fish or a molasses-bran muffin. At any rate, I spent most of last evening researching high-iron recipes and I will most certainly post anything successful.

Even though I’m discouraged about my iron level, I have to remember that I’ve successfully raised my vitamin D and B vitamins, have normal liver functions, and have maintained proper levels of everything else. My goal now is to keep eating healthy and to raise my hematocrit as much as I can. I’ve said it before, but I truly believe writing down a goal is all the motivation we need sometimes, and this situation is no exception. I will fine tune my eating habits to focus on protein and high iron. Since I’m not a medical expert, I’ve also consulted a hematologist to help me monitor everything.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful start to their week and that the sun is shining wherever you are. Stay motivated and stay positive!

Ciao for now, friends.

A Little Bit of Everything

1 Aug

There was a really excellent article on ESPN the other day by Eric Adelson discussing the magnitude of the challenge that Michael Phelps will face during the Olympics. Including preliminary races, semi-finals, and finals, he will swim 17 races in the span of nine days.

Here’s a link to the article:

This is the part I really wanted to quote though, because I’ve never quite been able to describe to anyone what swimming the individual medley is like. For those who don’t know, the IM is an event in which swimmers swim equal distances of all four strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breastroke, and freestyle). The longest race of that type I’ve ever competed in was the 200m version and I distinctly recall seeing black spots afterward—although it was one of the greatest adrenaline rushes I’ve ever felt. At any rate, here’s a paragraph from the article that explains what the 400m event feels like:

“Phelps begins with the most difficult event: swimming’s decathlon, the 400 individual medley. The race begins with 100 meters of butterfly, in which he must propel his body out of the pool, over and over, until he feels as if he’s doing squat jumps with two kids on his back. The fly requires an edge, almost an anger. ‘You have to be tougher, meaner,’ says 1992 gold medalist Mel Stewart. ‘If you don’t have a base of strength and stamina, you fade. You die.’

Next, the backstroke. Lie on your back, put ankle weights on and kick for a full minute. That’s what the backstroke feels like. By the end of these 100 meters, a swimmer’s quads and abs are shot. The race is half over.

Switch to breaststroke, Phelps’ weakest. He will struggle to hold form: back straight, elbows tight, head up, wrists snapping just so. His arms will whine and the field will close in and someone might even pass him, as Ryan Lochte did in the trials.

The freestyle leg will take anything Phelps has left. During breaststroke, muscles lock up. Still, he must sprint for 50 more seconds. Many swimmers drive the final 25 meters without lifting their head to breathe, to wring the final tenths out of the clock. At trials, Matt Grevers saw spots and felt his consciousness start to slip away. Phelps broke the world record to barely win the event at trials, and he called it ‘one of the most painful races of my life.’ He has 15 left.”

…And yet, some people commenting on ESPN continue to claim that swimming isn’t “a sport in the true sense.” What does that even mean? In order to find “the true sense” that this person was talking about I turned to the American Heritage Dictionary. I figured that if I found the definition of the word, I could then determine whether or not swimming fit the criteria. The first listing for “sport” came up as follows: “Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively.”

Well, I certainly came out of the pool breathing hard and feeling tired when I raced, so there’s the physical activity component. As for the next part, swimming most assuredly has rules, (i.e. touching the wall with two hands on certain strokes, no flutter kicking during butterfly or breastroke..etc). Lastly, judging from the endless number of swim meets I went to from ages 6-18, I’d say that it is “often engaged in competitively.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a sport! And now that I think of it, those very same principals apply to another sport that some people roll their eyes at even more:

Synchronized Swimming!

I think that synchronized swimming (and figure skating) often get put down as sports simply because when done properly, they look so beautiful and effortless. That’s how these people are trained. Team USA synchronized swimmer Kate Hooven said of the lack of respect, “It gets frustrating at times. Maybe we make it look too easy.”

Here’s an idea of what’s happening under the water for those swimmers. First of all, it’s an immediate disqualification if the bottom of the pool is touched. That means suspending the body in water while performing maneuvers which require breath control, balance, muscle control, and a big smile on your face. Part of the training regimen used to achieve this involves using 10 lb. weight belts and 2 1/2 lb. ankle weights during practice. Like most elite athletes, they devote 6-8 hours a day to their sport. While much of that time is spent in the water, they also do a lot of biking, running, yoga, and pilates to maintain flexibility and strength.

In other words, try treading water for 4 minutes, hold your breath during most of it, and add a host of underwater somersaults (in both directions) and then tell me if you can still determine which way is up. That’s nothing compared to what you’ll see done at the Olympics this year. I’d encourage everyone to try and catch the finals, because it’s bound to be an impressive display of athleticism and artistry.

All of this drama and fun starts a week from today. If there’s a specific event you don’t want to miss, here is the schedule of televised events.

I hope everyone had a wonderful week and that you’re looking forward to a relaxing weekend. Joe and I tried out the Wii Fit last night and I have to say, I’m just amazed at the technology that went into creating the game. The idea that the balance board wirelessly synchronizes with the system and can feel every little movement you make is just crazy to me. The game itself is truly a great step in the right direction. By being so active and interactive, it succeeds in encouraging exercise via fun games and tests. I particularly like the yoga, step aerobics, and the strength training. Joe is much better at the balance games than I am (haha, I know I’m a little clutzy). In any event, I’m really exciting to start tracking my progress with it and finding out if I do in fact get a little more “Fit.” My weekend will probably involve a lot of playing with my new toy (thanks Mom and Dad!).

This weekend also kicks off preseason football with the Hall of Fame Game. Indianapolis plays Washington, but the real focus here is the induction of this year’s Hall of Fame Class: Congratulations to Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Emmitt Thomas, Andre Tippett, and Gary Zimmerman. You can read more about their successful careers at

That’s all from me today. Again, have a wonderful weekend and remember to think positive! Ciao!

The Wimbledon Champ and the Olympian

7 Jul

In honor of Rafael Nadal, who defeated Roger Federer after the longest Wimbledon men’s final in history yesterday (nearly 5 hours!), and Michael Phelps, who has competed in seven events and broken two world records at the U.S. Olympic Swimming trials (so far), I present a protein bar fit for a champion!

Cast of characters:
1 cup soy protein powder (I used vanilla flavored)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup puffed brown rice
1/2 cup oat bran
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup milk chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups plain fat free yogurt
1/4 cup peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. salt

2 mixing bowls
1 greased 9×13 pan
1 greased cookie sheet

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If you’re using a glass 9×13 pan, make it 325.

First, mix all of your dry ingredients together. If you use your hands, it’s easier to get the brown sugar broken up.

When you finish, it will look something like this:

Next, whisk together the yogurt, peanut butter and vanilla until smooth.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine. You’ll need to use your hands near the end as it has the texture of very stiff cookie dough.

Press the dough evenly into the greased 9×13 pan and cook for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan and cut into 16 bars. A pizza cutter is useful here.

Arrange the cut bars on a cookie sheet.

Return the bars to the oven for another 15 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. If you like crispier bars (I do), simply turn the oven off after 15 minutes and leave them in the warm oven for up to 45 minutes.

The facts (per bar): 205 calories, 6 grams of fat, 26 grams of carbohydrates, and 16 grams of protein.

One of the great things about this recipe is it’s versatility. If you want it to be dairy free, replace the yogurt with silken tofu, mashed banana, or applesauce. Trade out the chocolate chips for dried fruit and/or nuts if you want to go even healthier.