Let’s talk about carbohydrates.
Is “carb” a dirty word in my vocabulary? Hell no. I love carbs, and I’m not ashamed about it. My first job in high school was waiting tables at a small Italian restaurant, Italian food is my absolute favorite, and usually, Italian food = pasta (which = carbs). I simply cannot deny my love for carbs.
I’ve tried the low-carb thing just like everyone else and their mother has, and I got nowhere with it. Much like how the calorie-restrictive diets of my past led to almost immediate weight gain when I went back to eating a normal amount of calories, going from low (or no)-carb to regular-carb made me MAJORLY balloon out. No bueno. I always thought that there had to be a better way to approaching carbs — they can’t ALL be terrible, right? Carbs are in EVERYTHING, after all.
The truth is, carbs by themselves aren’t to blame for making people overweight. The combination of carbs AND fat (with a proportionally smaller amount of protein) is the real problem. When your daily diet has a ton of carbs and fat with not enough protein, you WILL gain weight. Low-carb diets got a lot of publicity a few years back, so people started blaming carbs for their weight problems. Yes, there are various pros and cons to going low-carb, but I personally don’t avoid ALL carbs at ALL times because life would be really sad without any chips or bread ever.
Moderation Versus Restriction
Here’s the thing: one of the biggest reasons for my success in losing weight is that I learned how to not restrict myself from the things that I know I love. It’s all about moderation; not depressingly limiting ourselves from everything “yummy.” Eating healthily should not be about complete restriction. Restriction is negative, and in order to build lasting habits in the way that we approach food, it CAN’T be based on negativity. There’s always a “healthier” option for the foods that are typically labeled as “bad” — the trick is to always take the healthier approach. Eat complex carbs, and make sure you don’t cover them in creamy, fattening sauces. Serve them with a lean protein, too. If I want pasta, dammit, I’m going to include some pasta in my weekly meal plan, but you can bet your ass that I’m going to measure out some brown rice spaghetti to serve with my chicken breast instead of eating an entire bowl of plain noodles with Alfredo sauce at Olive Garden. The food/restaurant/etc. isn’t what makes us fat; it’s all about our choices in what we eat. It’s time to stop blaming McDonald’s for our expanding waistlines and start owning our decisions about food.
My Approach to Carbs
Carbs = energy. I eat more carbs on days when my body will actually use them, meaning pasta night happens on harder workout days when I either lift more, work bigger muscle groups, or get up and move around more throughout the day. All of this is (loosely) based on a concept called carb cycling — Chris Powell explains it way better than I could, and I don’t follow all of the rules because I simply don’t want to have to remember them. (Same reason I never went full Paleo. Too many rules; not enough space in my brain.)
Anyway, it’s Thursday. You know what Thursday means? LEG DAY. SQUATS. The whole shebang. You know what leg day means? CARBS!! So, in honor of carb/leg day — you asked for it — an Italian-inspired, pasta-filled recipe!
Healthier Chicken Parmesan
Like I mentioned, I worked at a fantastic family-owned Italian restaurant as my first job. Chicken Parmesan was probably one of the most popular items on the menu, but of course, it’s served on a plate that could feed at least 3 full-grown men and covered in cheese. I hit the weights pretty hard during my vacation, and I threw this together for a post-workout, heavier-carb dinner. Ryan wanted garlic bread, so I’m including that recipe and essentially everything that was on my plate when I had this glorious meal. :o)
Chicken Parmesan ONLY
FULL PLATE (including garlic bread/asparagus)
Cook time: 40 minutes (10min hands-on + 30min baking)
- 4oz. chicken breast
- 1.5 tbsp Panko bread crumbs
- 2 tsp Italian seasoning
- 2 tsp reduced fat Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup marinara sauce (I used Prego Heart Smart)
- 56g (1/2c cooked) brown rice spaghetti noodles
- 1.5 tbsp low-moisture part-skim shredded Mozzarella
- 1 tbsp stone-ground Dijon mustard
- Chopped fresh basil for garnish (optional)
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
- Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and cook spaghetti as directed; strain and set aside
- In a small dish (I used a tupperware container), combine bread crumbs, Italian seasoning, and Parmesan
- Coat your chicken with the Dijon mustard
- Transfer Dijon-coated chicken to the crumb mixture and coat on all sides (give them a good press to make sure the crumbs stick)
- Place chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake in the oven for 15 minutes
- Remove chicken from oven. Top with 1/8c marinara sauce and Mozzarella, then return to oven for an additional 5-10 minutes or until cheese is melted
- Place spaghetti on plate and top with remaining marinara. Serve with chicken on top of pasta and a side of asparagus
- 1 slice Ezekiel bread
- 1/2 tbsp softened grass-fed butter
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp oregano
- 2 tsp reduced-fat Parmesan
- 1/2 tbsp low-moisture, part-skim Mozzarella
- Spread softened butter on bread slice
- Top with remaining spices and cheese
- Toast until cheese is melted and serve
Fun trick: If you don’t have a conventional oven to toast these puppies, just lay your toaster on its side to cook your bread. Trust me — it works.
PS: this what is Ryan’s plate looked like less than 10 minutes after I set it down in front of him.