Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cutting Through the Fog with a Pickle

I wanted a pickle last night.  So I ate one. I ate a big, full-size baby cucumber preserved in a cloudy brine of salt and garlic. 

Not too long after that, I wanted some sleep.  So I got ready for bed.  I brushed my teeth, found some pajamas and took off my rings.  There were visible grooves in my fingers where my rings had been.  Some 8 hours later, upon waking, I put the rings back normally average-sized fingers still looked pudgy.

Edema. Water retention.  We've all gotten it when we've gone overboard with the sodium.  My one cucumber, though only 5 little calories, manages to pack in nearly 300 milligrams of sodium in its pickled incarnation. I'm sure there are products out there with lots more sodium, but all things considered, that's a pretty high sodium-to-calorie ratio.

But I don't want to give you a sodium lecture.  I want you to see what the pickle showed me.

Within an hour and a half of eating that pickle, one of its ingredients changed my body. The change still lingered on 8 hours later.  Although I know I will eventually flush out all that retained water, it will take a while for my body's homeostasis to win out.

Consider the hours and hours of power that that one pickle has had over my body.  It is impressive and sobering.

Think of the other homeostasis-altering things we put into our bodies everyday. The steak we ate at the restaurant may still be laced with antibiotics and bovine growth hormone.  The cereal we ate at breakfast probably has chemical preservatives to keep it shelf stable.  The lovely apple we had as a snack was hosed down with pesticides in the orchard and was then waxed (yes, WAXED) to an attractive sheen to make a better display in your grocer's produce section.

Your body has a lot of stuff to filter out.  And it might take longer to filter out some of that stuff than it took to filter out the sodium-bomb pickle.  If all of your systems are tip-top, you'll do fine.  If there is a weak link in the chain that is your total body mechanism, you might start to feel not-quite-right.  If the weak link goes unfixed for a long time, you might come down with some sort of disease.

Kinda makes you want to eat more cleanly, doesn't it?  If one little pickle can throw a human off balance for hours and hours, what can that other stuff do?  And how long until it's out of our systems?

We just don't know. So hedge your bets, people:
-Eat a lot a lot a lot of fruits and vegetables.  Nature put 'em here for you and you've evolved to thrive on them.  Organic is great, but if you can't afford it or it's not available, wash your produce.
-Eat just a little meat.  And find out how it was raised.  If you are in doubt, just order the salad.
-Stay out of the about processed/refined/chemicalized.  Ugh.
-If it comes in a box, can, or bottle, read the label.  If you don't know what half of the ingredients are, don't buy it and don't eat it,even if the front of the package says "natural," "healthy," or "organic."

Remember that one little pickle owned me for hours and hours.  It temporarily made a negative change in my body.   Don't willingly let bad food choices own you for months or years.  The cumulative effect could make a negative change that is permanent.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fixing Your "Broken" Heart through Food

No one wants a broken heart.  Many of us have had one, emotionally speaking, at one time or another and it's no treat, to be sure.  But when your heart is not well, physiologically, it's just as bad as having a broken heart, and very probably more deadly. 

February is American Heart Month and as far as your heart goes, a plant-based diet might be a pretty good idea.  When I attended the Cleveland Clinic's Obesity Summit last October, I heard no less than 3 top-level experts insist that a vegetarian or plant-based diet can retard or reverse cardiovascular disease.  So, if you have a troubled ticker (or aggravated arteries) and you would like to live as long as possible, it is to your advantage to learn to like your vegetables.

The 5 servings of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA, American Heart Association, and Center for Disease Control might be hard to fit in if you are filling up on bakery products, dairy products, and meat.  Here is what many people, trying to be healthy, use as their daily diet regimen:

BREAKFAST:   High fiber cereal with milk
LUNCH:  Lean turkey sandwich on wheat bread.
SNACK:  Low-fat granola bar
DINNER:  White meat chicken, rice, a few green beans
DESSERT:  Reduced fat frozen yogurt

Sorry but that's not a healthy diet.  Why?  Because it's not balanced.  It's all animal protein and processed grains.  There is only one "live" food in that whole day:  green beans.  You need "live" food to live!  The moral of the story is, when we are meat-focused, we often forget to take in our fruits and veggies.  But if we commit to limiting animal protein and processed foods we are forced to eat fruit and veggies.  Getting our "5- a-day" is easy.  Here is a day a live food-focused vegetarian might have:

BREAKFAST:  Bowl of fresh berries and nuts
LUNCH:  Salad with chickpeas and a crusty whole grain roll
SNACK:  Yogurt with fruit
DINNER:  Fresh Stir Fry of peppers, sugar snaps, carrots, and tofu over rice
DESSERT:  Poached Pear

This person's diet makes the cut!  He got his 5 servings in and is on his way to making positive changes for his overall wellness.  If he keeps this up, his heart is probably going to reward him with extended service.

Many of us are not ready to embrace the vegetarian lifestyle but DO want to improve our health.  I have been both a vegetarian and a meat eater over the years and am aware of the pros and cons of both---for example:  vegetarians get away cheaper at the grocery store, but meat eaters have an easier time navigating social situations or eating on the run.

For the not-quite-ready crowd, how about doing some vegetarian days a few times a week?  Do them when it is convenient for you.  Explore items and dishes that are new to you at your leisure.  Re-visit things you thought you hated.  See what a vegan entree is like.  Just try it.  If you can't get your 5-a-day in every day, then do it most days.  You are worth your best effort.

After your first heartbreak, you probably swore up and down that you never wanted to have another one.  Please keep that promise to yourself with your 5-a-day and have a beautiful, healthy February.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Years Suggestion for America or How to Stop Breakdowns at BJ's

I broke down in BJ’s Wholesale Club the other day.  Before you dismiss me as an unstable whack-a-doo, allow me to explain.

I was there on New Year’s Eve day with my bestie…it was my first trip inside a wholesale club and we were looking for a bunch of indulgent snacks to share with some hungry teenagers on this special occasion.  Nothing wrong with the story so far, right?

As we perused the aisles for supplies for four of us, I was unhappy with every box that was headed towards our shopping cart:

“Nah, that’s too large.”
“We can’t finish all of that.”
“No way, there’s only FOUR of us.”

It dawned on me that plenty of American households with members numbering four or fewer shop at BJ’s or Sam’s or Costco every single week.  They buy frozen pizza by the case.  They buy meat in giant slabs.   Milk gets purchased by the multi-gallons.  10 pound blocks of cheese.  Gigantic plastic tubs of perishable greens.  And they don’t always use all of what they buy.  These wholesale consumers think they are going to use all of their purchases.  They are worried about being caught short, running out of some important grocery item in the middle of the night.  Maybe they responsibly freeze some of their purchases, but they probably don’t.  Heaps and heaps and heaps of this food gets thrown away.

And that’s why I let loose a flood of tears in the freezer section of BJ’s.

I am not unlike your grandmother.  I sincerely believe that wasted food is an abomination.   When you over-buy your broccoli and let it waste in the veggie drawer, only to be thrown away as a sad, flaccid lump next week, you have just wasted a season of a farmer’s labor:  He bought fossil fuel for the farm equipment. He tilled.  He planted.  He invested huge sums of money in irrigation.  He lost sleep over weather reports.  He harvested in the blazing hot sun.  And you threw it all away because it turns out you weren’t in the mood for broccoli this week.   Worse than that is throwing away animal protein.   A life was laid to rest so that you could continue on with yours.   Except you weren’t feeling like that many hamburgers this week after all, and the ground meat was starting to get a little funky in the fridge, so you just pitched it.  Basically, you just had a cow killed for nothing.  And just to increase my grandmotherliness, there really ARE starving children in other countries who would be grateful for your broccoli.  This wastefulness is a crime on so many levels and the average American just doesn’t see it.  It hurts me to my very core, brings me to tears, in fact.

I’m not saying you can never buy in bulk…maybe you are doing some entertaining…maybe you have a family of 10.  But the rest of us should be buying little bits at a time, and really, only what we need  for the next week, or more ideally, for the next few days.  Take less, eat less, and waste less.  Your wallet, waistline, and the world will benefit.  Plus, it’s sort of disgusting to be the devil-may-care hedonist who just makes self-indulgent decisions at the expense of others.  Whether you see it or not, waste IS at the expense of a long chain of others.  Please don't be  "that guy" because it happens to be more convenient for you.

Pope Francis just publicized his New Year’s resolutions.  Among them is a vow to reduce food waste.   You don’t have to put spiritual credence in the papacy to see that the man has an accurate point about social justice as it relates to food:  He says: “We should all remember... that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry.   I encourage everyone to reflect on the problem of thrown away and wasted food to identify ways and means that, by seriously addressing this issue, are a vehicle of solidarity and sharing….”

So please don’t make your New Year’s Resolution a mere promise to peel off some pounds.  Make a vow to buy only the bare minimum of what your household needs and then use every drop of what you have purchased in a timely manner.  You will probably wind up eating far less so you'll shed the pounds anyway…but you will do it with a conscience because your new food purchasing and consumption habits will indirectly help a farmer, an animal, and a person with hunger needs more dire than your own .

Saturday, December 21, 2013

My Favorite Things

Apparently, Oprah Winfrey lists her favorite products at this time each year in case you are stuck for gift ideas.  I don't watch much television and I rather like editing extraneous products OUT of my life rather than rotating them into it, but that's TMI, as the kids say.  The point here is that I, too, have some favorite things worthy of an official list.  I am sure they help define my style of cookery...and if you like my style, well, you could try them, too.  I think these items are absolute necessities in the kitchen.  Worthy of note is the fact that  there are a few ready-made sauces I use at home when I simply lack the energy to pull some scratch cooking out of my hat after a long day.  Give them a whirl...let me know what memorable meals you make with them:

1.  FRANK'S RED HOT HOT SAUCE.  I'm like the old lady in the commercial: "I put that (bleep) on everything".  It's not the hottest hot sauce.  It's not the most complex.  But it is balanced and gives a beautiful zestiness when a recipe is crying out for some zip.  Mix it with fresh lime juice, generous agave nectar, and chopped cilantro for the best Pad Thai sauce in the world!
2.  TEXAS ROADHOUSE BBQ SAUCE.  It's not that chemical burgundy brown stuff you are used to.  This has chunks of real fruit and vegetables in it and it has an un-scary ingredients list...exactly what you would put into BBQ sauce if you were slow-cooking a batch yourself.  There are a couple varieties that swing from sweet to hot.  And if you still require a little more heat, see #1 above.
3.  CARDINI'S CAESAR DRESSING.  It's not exactly like homemade or steakhouse Caesar dressing.  I don't know if it is "the original" as the bottle claims, but it IS rich, complex, and delicious.  I like to dip baby carrots in it for a snack that fills me up without making me feel like a glutton.
4.  DOMINO AGAVE NECTAR.  It's organic. It's inexpensive.  It's relatively low on the glycemic index compared to other sweeteners.  It instantly adds a depth and subtle sweetness to your cooking without being cloying.  I hardly ever use sugar anymore.
5.  FAGE GREEK YOGURT.  Put away the sour cream.  Step away from runny yogurts with "fruit" flavors that smell and taste like air freshener.  Hands down, this is the best yogurt on the market.  Use it in place of buttermilk, sour cream, and creme fraiche. Or eat it plain with fresh fruit and/or honey.  Thin it down, add citrus and garlic for an amazing chicken marinade.  I make frozen yogurt with Fage and preserves when I'm jonesing for a sweet treat.
6.  LIMES.  In my opinion, there are very few things in the culinary world that don't benefit from a twist.  Beef stew too rich, heavy, and blah?  Twist of lime.  Your homemade Thai recipes not as good as the local restaurant?  Twist of lime. Boring, overcooked steak?  Twist of lime.  Flavorless, dry pork?  Twist of lime (and cumin!).  Need a change of pace for chicken or salmon?  Cook a smidgen of tequila down with a little agave nectar and add a twist of lime.
7.  HAIN IODIZED SEA SALT.  I love sea salt because I find it nice and salty, which means I can get away with a little less and still have well-seasoned food.  It is ground finely for better, more familiar culinary control (I still don't like doing a "3-finger pinch" with kosher salt cut like snow-melting rock salt.  Iodide keeps the goiter and cognitive impairments at bay.
8.  BETTER THAN BOUILLON BEEF BASE.  It's like demi-glace on the grocer's shelf. You can take sauces to the next level with this. I put it in the sauce for duck a l'orange and wow, is it a brilliant time-saver!  And even if you never use it for anything but making soup, you'll stop wasting money on watery, vaguely chemical-flavored broths.  Keeps for almost ever in the fridge.
9.  THAI KITCHEN FISH SAUCE.  Fish sauce alone is a little gross and funky, but blended with other things it adds a special complexity that nothing else but hours-long slow-cooking can (and frankly, who really has time for hours-long slow-cooking??) I put fish sauce in my stir fry last night.  It's great in soups and stews.  I faux-age steaks with fish sauce, garlic, and black pepper for 2 hours on the counter to make my cheap grocery store cut taste like a night out at Morton's.
10.  PALMOLIVE.  "You're soaking in it."  This is not a food item, but  this ugly, acrid green dish liquid in the out-dated bottle will help you clean up after dinner better than anything else.  I've tried 'em all, people, and rest assured that this soap cuts grease far better than the dish detergents with prettier scents, packages, and marketing campaigns-- I am finally resigned to the fact that Madge was right all along.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Getting Philosophical on the Mediterranean Diet

I did it again.  I bought another diet and nutrition book...which I happen to need like a hole in the head.  I wouldn't have bought the thing at all (I'm pretty sure I've got the subtle nuances of most major eating regimens down pat), but when I was scanning the pages in the store, I saw a section on the mineral phosphorous and thought this book might be more well-written and more in-depth than most.  Maybe this book would hold the key to simplify everything and will tell us all how to live to be 100 years old and fit as a fiddle the whole time.

But alas, it was just a typical overly-excited effort to convert others to some whack-a-doo regimen backed by the fuzziest excuse for nutritional science that the author sees as an inarguable truism.

What would make a really good diet book for me?  I want to see long-term studies.  I want some semblance of mortality data.  I want a real control group.  And for sure, I want less proselytizing.

Most doctors will admit it.  Even they cannot make a definitive mandate on what diet is the absolute best for general overall wellness and longevity.

Docs admit that a very low fat diet (the kind we all embraced in the 1980s) can yield respectable weight loss results and positive indicators for cardiovascular health...if a dieter can stick to it.  But we've all learned over time that with a very low level of fat, satiety is not always there for the dieter.  If, in an effort to feel satisfied, they down a whole pot of rice instead of the half cup portion allotted to them, a dieter can actually gain weight on a low-fat regimen.

Well, then, how about those high protein/low carb diets like Atkins or these new Paleo programs?  Aside from very low calorie liquid semi-fasts,  high protein/low carb diets are probably the quickest route to rapid weight loss.  But they may not be the optimal choice for dieters trying to correct a negative trend in their cardiovascular health or those on diabetes medication.  And sooner or later, someone is going to offer the dieter a piece of birthday cake which is going to instantly erase that arduous journey into ketosis.  This is another program that is tough to stick to for the rest of your days.

What about hardcore veganism, like the Engine 2 Diet?  It looks very compelling for cardiovascular health and it is gaining popularity...but it may not be so great for joint and bone health, and the average omnivore can't seem to make the conversion to a world with zero animal byproducts.

Gluten-free?  This regimen is an absolute necessity for someone with celiac sprue and it is  probably a desirable diet for someone who suffers from IBS, Crohn's, leaky gut syndrome or some other chronic gastro-intestinal disorder, but this diet is not necessarily designed for the average joe looking to shape up their general wellness. 

What about this Mediterranean Diet that is getting so much hype?  The Mediterranean Diet, which should read like an exercise in semi-vegetarianism, often gets misinterpreted by the average omnivore as a steady diet of chicken and turkey.  Actually, in a perfect world, the follower of a Mediterranean Diet would lean a little harder into the realm of vegetarian and seafood meals. Mediterranean Dieters also need to eschew white flour, bakery products, sugary sweets, and sweet drinks.   The medical world is excited about this diet because they feel it is sustainable...that even non-health-nut-type people can stick to it on a permanent basis and that it could therefore improve the face of public health (which really needs an overhaul as it pertains to diet-related disorders).

I agree that overall, the Mediterranean Diet looks pretty good:  The dieter gets all of the wonderful health-sustaining benefits of plant-based foods, steers clear of the atherosclerosis-causing microbiota found in red meat, stays full for longer than 10 minutes (since there is a nice film of olive oil in the tum-tum), can still eat some animal protein to blend in with the regular folk at a dinner party, and can be sociable and drink a toast  of red wine with the gang if they choose to indulge in that sort of thing.

I also happen to like the Mediterranean Diet because in addition to looking pretty nutritionally well-rounded,  it's just kind of how I choose to live my life and eat anyway (so I'm sure my tender ego feels vindicated in some way.)  But that's about all I know for sure.  In fact, I think that's about all that the "experts" know for sure, too.

Is the Mediterranean diet the key to being trim?  Maybe...maybe not.  Is it a way to prevent or reverse chronic disease? Maybe...maybe not.  Is it the key to a long life?  Maybe...maybe not.  Whether we follow the Mediterranean Diet or some other program that we think is good, does eating intelligently give us any guarantees?  Not really.  Even at the 8th Annual Obesity Summit at the Cleveland Clinic, the doctors were somewhat divided on the best program and there is very little data on mortality rates as it pertains to specific diets.

Whether you try the Mediterranean Diet, Veganism, Low Fat, High-Protein/Low-Carb, Gluten-free, or any of the myriad dietary plans out there, you may find you reap some short-term benefits.  And you may like the short-term benefits so much that you stick with the plan long-term.  But are you never ever going to have any cardiovascualr problems?  Sorry, no guarantees.  Will you never ever contract cancer?  Sorry, no guarantees. Will you be strong, mobile, and quick-witted as you approach your hundredth birthday? Sorry, no guarantees.

The only guarantee we have is today.  So just make wholesome food choices that make you feel clean, strong, and energized today.  Use that strength and energy to make it a great day that you are glad to be a part of.  And maybe you can use that strength and energy to something good for someone else out there, too.  Then get up and do it again tomorrow.  That effort to get the most out of each day is the only guarantee of a good diet, so I hope you find the plan that makes you feel that way.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Epic Fail: "Lifestyle Change"

I hate the word “lifestyle”.  It’s a dumb word, and it’s so overused that it has become sort of hollow and empty, especially as it pertains to diet and health.  Every day we hear,  “Don’t  go on a diet.  Just change your lifestyle.”  In an effort to do that, we decide we're going to adopt a couple new habits.  We join a gym, buy a bottle of olive oil, and swear we will eat baby carrots instead of potato chips. Our lifestyle changes last for a little while.  Sometimes the lifestyle changes don't make it past the 3-day mark, especially if we are under great stress and balancing 400 other things.  Sometimes the lifestyle changes go for a very long time-- 6 months or a year, especially if we are super-motivated and all the odds stack up in our favor.  And when we can persevere for a while with our gym rat/olive oil/baby carrot regimen and we've managed to make some good things happen to our body, we breathe a sigh of relief and say, “I did it.  I changed my lifestyle.”  

And then the wheels fall off.

Because, as challenging as those changes are, they're just not enough.  A bottle of Filippo Berio in the pantry and a much-begrudged periodic visit to Bally's do not a new "lifestyle" make.  You are on a collision course with your old ways and your old problems.

How can I be so negative?  Well, firstly because it is an absolute statistical fact.  And secondly because it has happened to me all of my adult life:  “Hey, I’m a lean marathoner and I’m capable of anything” rapidly turned into “C’mon sweetie, that new HBO series is starting and I made stew.  Let’s just take it easy tonight”  You can call it recidivism, you can call it relapse, you can call it whatever you want, but the numbers out there show that most of us who start a health kick really have a hard time making it our “lifestyle” for longer than a year.

But this tendency to not change our lifestyle is not an overarching lack of is a biological system called homeorhesis.  Basically, our body regulates itself with hormones and brainwave patterns that we have  limited control over.  This regulatory process creates for each human body its own trajectory upon which it travels through life. Even if it is not optimal, your body wants to stay on this trajectory and it has a tendency to return itself to the trajectory it was on…even when you have done the work to go a different direction. So it is long-term fight against your own unseen biology to be a success.  Think about it in terms of your car.  Let’s say you’ve knocked the old jalopy out of alignment and it wants to pull dangerously left.  Now, unless you can afford to have major alignment work done, the old car is always going to pull left.  You are going to have to work every time you are behind the wheel and fight like the devil to keep it rolling straight.  You can’t let go of that wheel, or steer with your knees, or change the radio station, or lighten your grasp, because in the split-second that you do, you are just going to wind up veering left again.  It’s that fast.   

The moral of the story is, if you think you need to solve a health problem (whether it’s being overweight, having hypertension, having diabetes, etc.) through diet and exercise, you can never ever stop.  You can't let go of the steering wheel.  You can’t coast.  You can’t cheat.  You can’t make a deal that you’ll go back to being “good” after vacation.  You have to keep pulling that misaligned vehicle straight every day or you are going to drift left and get creamed.

That is a bummer extraordinaire, is it not?  You could find it very de-motivating and wonder, why even bother?   Most people are not lazy, and they are willing to do the hard work to get healthy.  But they are not willing to create a lifelong relationship with hard work…and yet despite the high failure rate of people trying to lose weight/get healthy, there IS a 35% success rate.  Yes, some folks really CAN do it long-term!  Better yet, that successful 35% who really stick with it can, miraculously, re-set their homeorhesis trajectory.   It takes like 5+ years of constant stick-to-it-iveness,  but these people re-program their brainwaves and hormones to those of a thin person!

So this 35% who beat the odds...what's their secret?  Are they harder workers?  Do they have an allergy to everything except broccoli?  Did they make a deal with the devil?  Why are they so lucky?

I'll argue that they didn't enact a "lifestyle change project"...they just flipped a switch and changed their lives.

More specifically, the success stories do share some similarities, mechanically.  By and large, all of the people who were able to make-over their bodies and their health as it pertains to weight and weight-related issues do the following:  they religiously exercise about 60 minutes a day, they find a healthy dietary regimen they can stick to every day, they periodically write down/record what they are doing and eating to make sure they are toeing the line, they weigh themselves regularly, and they maintain consistency all week and weekend long (no self-bargaining conversations like “I’ll start in fresh first thing Monday morning”)  

I would gander, though, that socio-culturally, the success stories also share similarities.  These folks don't just adopt a couple lifestyle changes.  On the contrary, everything in their world is re-framed.  Their closets probably look different, their pantries certainly must look different, their commute and daily habits may be significantly changed, and they probably made a few new friends whose habits mirror their own or in some way support them.  They might have even changed other things like career or relationships. They discard the dysfunctional habits of their old world, and openly embrace new ways of doing things.  They see the constant work as an opportunity rather than a burden.  And I’m sure you’ve heard people say things like “I’m a different person these days.  I don’t even want to go back to the way I was before.”   Their whole LIFE changes.  That is the key to lifestyle change.  Everything has to deviate from the way it was before.

Again, some people might be disappointed or flat-out angered by this.  They like their lives just fine, thank you very much.  And who the heck is this personal chef spouting off that they need to flip their world upside down to lose a couple pounds?  How dare she?  In all fairness, this assertion is not my personal invention.  I am relaying information as studied by the National Institute of Health and a host of scholars at the Cleveland Clinic’s 8th annual Obesity Summit.   

To really create a change, forget the weak, watered-down term “lifestyle”.  Instead, realize that to improve your weight and/or your health, you have to change your life.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gut Microbiota: Protect Your Heart and Your Hindquarters

This week I attended the Cleveland Clinic's 8th Annual Obesity Summit.   You might wonder why a personal chef would sign up for a seminar geared towards medical care providers.   The short answer is that I craved some real science for a change.  On a weekly basis, I sift through reams of nutritional dogma and fuzzy proclamations about health in an effort to help clients adhere to medically-suggested diets (not just for obesity/weight control, but for a whole host of health-related reasons), and I wanted some hard, empirical data that separates the best dietary habits from old wives' tales and fluff marketing put out by foodservice corporations.  Indeed, my goal was achieved and I certainly did learn some fascinating data about the human body and how it regulates weight.  Since I have copious notes on a great number of topics as they pertain to the subject of weight control, I will have to approach these topics in separate blog posts in the coming weeks.

But today I want to talk about your gut.  Or, gut microbiota, to be more specific.

Most of us are aware that there is bacteria in our gut that helps breakdown food.  For example, yogurt companies market the active cultures in their products as "friendly" bacteria that promotes good digestion.  You've heard of the stuff.

This gut microbiota, apparently, is hugely influential in your overall health. This bacteria influences not only whether you will be fat or thin but also whether your arteries will harden or stay pliable.  That means a significantly overweight person can count calories like crazy and do all the right things and not lose very much weight at all and still be on a path towards cardiovascular disease.  Not only does gut bacteria behave like its own little endocrine system, creating hormones that regulate metabolism,  it also produces products (trimethylamine n-oxide or TMAO) in the breakdown of nutrients that are directly linked to atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries.  Scientist have even found when they insert microbiota from an obese lab rat into a skinny lab rat, the skinny lab rat soon becomes obese, too...with no real change to the formerly-skinny rat's diet or exercise habits.

This is where an overweight individual who is at risk for cardiovascular disease might want to throw up thier hands and say, "I can't win."

Well, yeah,  they can win, actually.

One of the most exciting things I heard at the summit was that long term vegetarian exposure inhibits the gut from forming TMAO, the compound linked to atherosclerosis.  And if they've been a veg-head for an extended period of time and decide they want a Delmonico for old time's sake...they still will not have a spike in their TMAO.  The long-term vegetarian diet effectively changes their gut microbiota!

If they are eating their vegetarian diet and exercising, their body will produce a hormone called irisin, which allows fat to be burned even while at rest.

So the diet books are not far off when they tell you to eat your vegetables and get exercise.  It's not just an empty mantra, it is a real prescription for metabolic change.

Now if someone's gut bacteria is really bad, and they have problems beyond obesity and cardiovascular risk, they can actually have a fecal transplant.  That's not as gross as it sounds.  It just means that the docs get their hands on some good gut microbiota and put it into the troubled digestive tract to effectively crowd out the bad bacteria, again with the promise to affect real metabolic improvement as well as improvement in overall health.

If you are not obese, but maybe are concerned about your overall wellness as it relates to your gut, what can you do?  Lay off the steaks and chops for one thing. (I know it's a disappointment, but the science is REAL), eat some hearty whole grains (these seem to produce good bacteria), have some yogurt with active cultures, get more exercise to make some irisin, and talk to your care provider about probiotics or prebiotics to see if they are right for your situation.

I find it fascinating that something so small..some little bugs in our digestive system...can matter so much for our cardiovascular health, our metabolic output, and our weight.  And I find it encouraging that there is action we can take to make real, positive change.  Getting our gut microbiota in line really can help protect our hearts and our hindquarters!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Most Important Meal of the Day My Foot

My entire life I have been fascinated with diets and health regimens.  I've tried most of them..sometimes to see if I could drop a couple pounds, sometimes to increase my general energy level, sometimes to feed a specific athletic goal, and sometimes just to see what all the buzz is about.  One diet I tried for an extended period of time was based on the "Natural Hygiene" philosophy that calls for lots of raw, whole foods in general, but specifically insisted that nothing but fresh fruit be eaten during the first four hours of the day.  While it sounds a little restrictive, I have always loved fruit, and see it as a real treat, so having a daily breakfast of something ripe, juicy, and seasonal was not much effort for me.  And a fruit-only breakfast was so in-step with my busy lifestyle...if I woke up late, I just ran out the door with a couple apples or oranges in hand.

The fruit-for-breakfast routine was so delicious and practical that I held on to that tenet of the diet long after I had abandoned other parts of the Natural Hygiene program that did not work for me.  Of course, on the days that I wake up a little hungrier, I might supplement that fresh fruit with a dollop of yogurt, a handful of nuts, or even a piece of toast, but basically I keep breakfast a pretty light affair and am no worse for the wear.  In fact, I'm generally happy with what my doc tells me when I'm in for a check-up and I could be doing a lot worse on the scale (despite all my indiscretions later in the day), so I have stuck with the fruity breakfasts over the years.

Until today.

Rare is the evening I am not a member of the clean plate club, but last night I just couldn't finish the last few bites of my salmon and vegetables.  No worries, thought I---salmon and vegetables will make a protein-packed breakfast that will get my work week off to a high-energy start. What could be better?  I even blended those last couple bites of salmon and veg with a scrambled egg to make it really feel like breakfast.

So, how did I like my big breakfast?  Not much, thank you very much for asking.  That's just too heavy a way to start the day.  I feel a little sluggish, really.

I mentioned my uncertainty about big breakfasts to a friend who chided, 'Well, you know it's the most important meal of the day!"  Yeah, my foot.

I'm not buying it.  I don't believe there is a single most important meal.  I think there are routines that work well with certain lifestyles and routines that are counterproductive.  I think the body needs a certain number of high-quality calories ("high quality" meaning packed with vitamins, proteins/amino acids, minerals, and fiber) per 24-hour day, but whether you get those calories at 8am or 8pm matters less than what recent dietetic dogma would have us believe.  In fact, I've always found great reasonableness in the Tarzan philosophy of total health:  "Eat when hungry.  Sleep when tired."  But for pity's sake, don't choke down a bowlful of cold, sugar-bombed cereal and see-through skim milk (so you have no fat to slow the uptake of that refined sugary crap and possibly get some use out of some of those substandard calories) at 0-dark-hundred because you think it's good for you.  Have a shot of real fruit or vegetable juice (the no-sugar added/not-from-concentrate kind) to break the fast of sleeping all night, or crunch on an apple until you "come-to".  Then eat a larger more substantive meal later, when your stomach is actually rumbling at you.

I'm not asking you to forgo breakfast entirely, but I am suggesting you try keeping it light.  Because if you big-morning-meal-eating people are all walking around with the over-full sensation that I've got going on right now, I can guarantee that that dull feeling is a message from your body to pump the breakfast brakes a little bit.

And if you think you are keeping yourself fit and trim with a toaster waffle and a half pound of bacon, think again:  As recently as September 2013, research conducted by the Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama found that breakfast habits and obesity do not have a direct link.  In fact, weight gain or loss is almost always a clear-cut matter of calories ingested versus calories expended.  You will expend a 150-calorie  fruit cup before you will expend a 500+-calorie sausage/egg/cheese biscuit.  So why not have two fruit cups?  You can have one when you wake up, just to get yourself going, and then have another one in another hour or two when you get legitimately hungry but maybe are not quite ready for lunch.  You get a bonus breakfast and still save yourself 200 calories or more.  And you won't feel like you swallowed an anvil along with your coffee.

Don't call me for brunch--I'm keeping it light from now on!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shared Food is Health Food

Maybe you have a family who keeps a traditional family meal schedule.  Maybe you have a glittering social life.  Maybe you are encouraged by your employer to entertain for business. Maybe you work in a restaurant that hosts a staff meal. If so, congratulations--you are probably healthy as a horse and pretty happy to boot.  But think for a minute about the hoards of busy single parents working two jobs and whose meal times consist of hitting the drive-through during the commute from job to job. Think about the all the lonely seniors who say they are satisfied with a can of soup alone in front of the TV.  Think about the scores of young, busy people who wolf down a bowl of cereal in front of Facebook and call the event "dinner".  Ugh.

The meal taken alone not only fails to satisfy, it is downright unhealthy.

However much we enjoy some solitude, however much we treasure our independence…we, as humans, are a social animal and it is essential that we periodically connect with one another for our emotional health. What better time to fuel our emotional health than when we are fueling our physical health at mealtime?  A good dinner amongst good people can nurture us on so many levels.

Last night while out walking the dog, I met Joey.  Joey is a new neighbor.  We were both trying to be friendly although Joey and I seem to have little in common:  Joey is a relatively recent immigrant to the US from a war-torn southeast Asian country has had an almost unimaginably different life experience from mine. Our list of differences would be a long one, indeed.

But we connected over a seasoning---lemongrass.  In our brief and initially awkward meet-the-new-neighbor chat out on the sidewalk, he happened to mention that although he works in a different business now, he was a chef for 30 years.  I told him I, too, cook for a living. Then I confided that having no formal training in Asian cookery, I was never really sure if my self-guided method for fabricating lemongrass into recipes was correct or wasteful.  With that, Joey brightened,  called his wife outside, exclaimed something in another language, and she returned bearing giant containers of the grassy culinary herb.  He excitedly went on about the best way to use it in Korean barbeque, shrimp soup, lemongrass chicken, and beef stew.  He said he would show me how to do all of these things. There is a plan to get our families together for a dinner.

So despite all of our differences, it quickly became clear in our half-hour chat on the sidewalk that not only do Joey and I both like to cook, we both see the value in connecting.  In that way, I have everything in common with him.

While popular books and magazines deliver us fuzzy science on the health benefits of Veganism, or Paleo/low-carb programs, or omega-rich Mediterranean diets, I’ll gladly toss all of their conjecture out the window and tell you that a bowl of deep-fried, corn-syrup-drenched junk taken in the company of others is much healthier than the naked vegetable stalk taken in solitude. Sharing with others also forces some moderation. You cannot kill the whole bowl of deep-fried, corn-syrup-drenched junk all by yourself when the portion needs to be shared amongst a whole table of others.  Conversely, you can do the most misguided eating in solitude….I mean, haven’t we all?

On some primal level, we are meant to be together.  We are meant to crawl out of our offices and talk to one another.  We are meant to see that the guy who grew up on the other side of the earth actually does have something in common with us.  We are meant to share.  We are meant to leave something for the others.  We are meant for the challenge of trying new things.  We are meant to sit and listen.  We are meant to contribute to the feast.  We are not meant to carry a calorie calculator.  We are not meant to close the door on entire food groups.  We are not meant to have a television as a dining companion.  We are not meant to allow our isolationism to cause us to invent wacky ideas about eating.  We are not meant to make extreme lifestyle choices in order to thrive and be healthy.  No matter what is on the plate, the mere act of sharing with others magically transforms the stuff into "health food".

Eat with others.  Do it often.  Tell me if you don’t feel an improvement in the quality of your life. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

There's More to Life than Food...But Not Much (Or, "What I did on my Summer Vacation")

We were in the wilds of the high weald of southeast England, huddled around a fire pit under gathering clouds and chilling breezes philosophizing on life, when it occurred to us that there are really only two basic needs in life:  the need to maintain body temperature/stay warm, and the need for sufficient calories.  I would now add to that short list access to clean water, but I think you catch my drift.  The jobs and cars and bills and phones and assignments are all superfluous.  Of course, we've now created a world where we would struggle to get along without all of that other stuff, but at the very heart of the matter, if you keep yourself from getting hypothermia and maintain sufficient nutrition, you will survive.  I will argue that in doing those two simple tasks in good company, actually you will thrive.

I insist on this point because, during a recent two-week vacation to the rolling farmlands of the English countryside, I did very little more than to keep myself warm and fed.  And I must say I've never before come off of a holiday feeling so relaxed and healthy.  I feel like I am truly thriving.

Sometimes there were just a few of us at dinner, little more than a nuclear family unit, gathered around the long, rustic pine dining table before the warmth of the fireplace in the beamed and timbered kitchen.  Other times there were so many of us that we had to use two tables; the gaggle of children giggling together at one, the adults trading musings and ideas at another.  Regardless of how many guests came to sup, the dinner event was a way to mark time.  Down in a valley, in a 600-year old house, surrounded only by sheep and crows, with no to-do list or cell phone service, moments seem to slip into days.  I suppose it would be possible to watch the sun move across the sky, but it's a nearly-insurmountable challenge to keep track of the hours in such a magical, pastoral paradise.  But everyone has to eat, so dinner was the event that kept us grounded, kept us from floating away with the cabbage white butterflies lilting over the lavender.

And as I helped to chop vegetables that my friend Jessica had pulled from the garden just moments before the dinner preparations began, I felt grounded and focused, even as the distractions of lively music and stampeding children played in the background.  As I reconnected with old friends and made new ones at the dinner table, passing platters heaped with colorful culinary experiments, I felt recharged and engaged.  As I scrubbed or towel-dried pots and pans with intelligent companions keen on good things for the world, I felt like a contributor to a larger effort, even if this time the effort was only to put away the skillets.

In that way, food ---the often humble, sometimes magical vehicle for our basic caloric needs--- created a time structure for us, grounded us, lent us focus, recharged us, engaged us, and allowed us all to contribute, which begs the question:  What else is there to a life well-lived?  Really, what else?!

The answer is that there is really not much more.

We'll all have to chase papers around our desks, send money hither and yon, check our messages, and on and on and on but that's not what we truly need to do to thrive.  I have to admit that there's more to life than food...but not much...not really.  At the center of it all, we simply just need to stay warm enough and eat enough.  If we can do those two little things while surrounded by good people,  we've absolutely done enough.  And we've probably accomplished more than we imagined.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Dangers of "Healthy" Eating

We are becoming a nation of orthorexics.

What is "orthorexia"?  It is a proposed new eating disorder, identified in the late 1990's, and consists of an obsession with eating healthy foods and systematically eschewing unhealthy ones.

You might wonder why this behavior would be characterized as an eating disorder.  Isn't that what we're supposed to the healthy stuff and avoid the junk?

Well, yes.  But the problem is, we are obtaining information about healthy living from questionable sources.  We are not talking to our doctors, registered dieticians, or even trained para-professionals about the matter.  Instead, we are glomming on to the latest article in the Huffington Post ("their journalists seem pretty competent"), the signage at the specialized grocer ("the bakery said the sugar they use isn't one of those bad sugars"), or the buff guy at the gym ("Franz said not to eat fruit and just to focus exclusively on animal protein").

In the eighties many people attempted to cut out ALL fat.  We now have sects of self-proclaimed health-oriented people cutting out ALL animal protein and animal by-products, or cutting out ALL starches, or cutting out ALL fruit.

How about this...when you see the word ALL used in a negatively dogmatic way in a dietary regimen, why not put on your critical thinking cap, call your MD personally, or set up a consultation with a respected registered dietician?  You know, just in case that otherwise compelling regimen is based on fuzzy science and is potentially dangerous....

We have begun to look askance at anything the traditional medical or food service establishment recommends, convinced that there is a complicated web linking killer foods and big pharma in a dastardly conspiracy of profitability at the expense of human health and life. 

If there is any conspiracy, it's actually to keep you HEALTHY.

If you, or your lower income friends, get sick with a preventable food-related disease you actually cost the establishment money.  This is why public health officials are veritably freaking out about the obesity epidemic.  It's expensive on many, many levels and it will have a very real impact on our economic system in the future.

This (uncharacteristic, I hope) rant was brought on by a British article I stumbled upon regarding naturopathic diet therapists.   Apparently, anyone can hang out a shingle proclaiming themselves an expert.  This has had deadly results in some cases.  Read about it here:

We might gloss over such an article and think that we'd be wiser, that we know better.  But we don't.  We are forever coming up with new fears and new rules about entire categories of food.  There are plenty of people out there who SHOULD be making restricted choices and sweeping dietary changes, but those people likely have been advised by a professional.

I encourage everyone to explore new ways of eating.  It can be invigorating and interesting and indeed helping people explore new ways of  eating has been my livelihood.  But I encourage everyone to exercise critical thinking and use a respected medical  or dietetic expert as a resource.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Low Budget/High Living

Embarrassing though it may be, allow me to confess to you that I pinch pennies.  I don't engage in this behavior out of a spirit of miserliness but out of a spirit of necessity---self-employment often poses hazards that are somehow tied to the pocketbook.  So, yes, I do pinch pennies.  I pinch them so hard that I am surprised  they don't turn around and slap me.

But I am convinced that having a limited budget for food is a benefit to one's health, to the environment, and of course, to one's personal balance sheet.  Forget what the newspapers have reported---that eating at a low budget necessarily leads to obesity, that limited budgets are forced to seek out fatty cuts of meat, high fructose corn syrup, and fast food value meals.  Conversely, I think it forces one to think more carefully about how to spend their limited allotted food budget (and most expensive vegetables are STILL cheaper than the cheapest cut of fatty meat), and it makes waste unthinkable.  Limiting the food budget also discourages overeating since you can't eat what isn't on the premises.  It encourages buying local goods as they sometimes yield a savings, not having had to take an expensive transcontinental ride in a gas-guzzling semi.  And of course, if you've kept your grocery bill low, you may have less discomfort paying the rent, making the car repairs, or contributing to the savings account.

I have committed to living on between 30.00 to 50.00 a week and I'm loving it!  My BMI is going in a positive direction.  Gone are the days I've forgotten about a head of broccoli in the veggie drawer for 2 weeks that I have to throw away, unloved and wasted.  And sometimes I have a little extra cash at the end of the week that might correspond to a glass of wine with a friend, a round of golf in the sun, or an indulgent little accessory found at the shops.  Cheapskating oneself at the grocery store is a win on many levels but (and this is a big but!)  it requires self-discipline and commitment, especially if you are unlike me and don't happen to be forced by circumstance to do it.  How so?

-You must take inventory of your pantry before you run off to the store.   There is probably a box of rice, maybe a can of beans, and probably some flour in a cupboard somewhere.  You should use it...this week...pronto !  The rice and beans, maybe supplemented with a fresh vegetable, makes a fine vegetarian dinner or a burrito filling.  Having flour means you could buy a 20-cent packet of yeast instead of a 5-dollar loaf of bread for your breakfast toast.
-You absolutely have to plan your week. You can't indulge every mood swing and craving in this lifestyle.  You have to plan your meals, make a list, buy only those items, and stick to that plan.  You can't decide midweek that you want a 50-dollar plate of Chateaubriand when you have already spent your 50 dollars.  Sorry.
-You will probably have to eliminate snacks as you know them.  The 12-dollar wedge of imported Camembert?  Not this week.  The 4-dollar bag of chips?  Really?  Are those empty-calorie grease bombs worth it to you?  Why not choose the 99-cent bag of carrots and just mix some herbs into another buck's worth of yogurt if you are that desperate to snack..?  Or if you must have salty-salty...just buy 3-dollars worth of old-fashioned pop-it-yourself-in-a-pan popcorn...those bags of popcorn will last for months and months and months.
-You will have to re-think protein.  If you are living on, say 30 bucks per person in the household for weekly groceries, it's not possible to eat meat every night.  So you have an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with egg dishes (cheap though they may be, eggs are the highest-quality, most easily-assimilated protein for the human body), finally learn how to make tofu that actually tastes good, and experiment with beans and legumes.  You can also find out what the heck those foodies on TV are raving about when they wax dreamy-eyed about offal and organ meats, because those things probably fall into your new budget.
-You will have to learn to love a wider variety of things for their seasonality.  If there is a picky-eating little kid inside of you, time to make your palate grow up.  Learn to like grapefruit because it is your best value in winter fruit (they're awesome broiled..makes them sweeter!  ...or with avocados...mellows out the sharpness.)  Maybe you should try your dreaded zucchini again when zucchini is in season.  There is no whining in basic sustenance survival.  A calorie is a calorie and you must purchase the calories that provide you some strength and nutrition while fitting in to your budget.

Before you run off screaming that eating for a limited budget is cruel and unusual punishment, let me tell you that I think I've got it pretty good.  In fact, I'll share my current week's menu with you and you can judge for yourself.  Oh, and by keeping a tight rein on myself and using a few things I had on hand/leftover from last week, I spent exactly 38.00 at the grocery this week (and that included a bag of dog food and a box of light bulbs!)

EVERYDAY BREAKFAST--I always buy fresh fruit and a little dairy (yogurt or ricotta) for a light breakfast.  I also made a loaf of bread when I did the pizza crust (listed below) in case I want to grab a piece of toast sometime.
EVERYDAY LUNCH--Aye, here's the rub:  I often skip lunch.  Don't judge.  I usually keep some peanut butter on hand for a quick sandwich if I need one.
SAT.--Homemade pizza with wilted peppers and onions (I made the  crust which takes like 10 minutes and used some leftover peppers and cheese)
SUN.--Chef's salad with a little bacon
MON.--Beef burritos (had a smidge of ground beef in the freezer i could put to work) and side salad
TUE.--Pasta with garlic, chickpeas, and kale (A big indulgence at 3 dollars...since I had to buy everything except the pasta---isn't there always a box of pasta in the cupboard??)
WED.--Veggie Delight sandwich.  I'll use my salad greens and any misc veggies lurking in the drawer for a Dagwood Bumstead-style vegetable stacker.
THU.--Mock Paella (I have some rice on hand and will put Saturday's leftover pizza sauce to work with some crushed red peppers and 2-dollar's worth of sausage...could have gotten some shrimp, too)
FRI.--Leftover burritos and salad (I know I won't use everything from Monday's meal)

Is that so hateful?  That's 38.00, people.  That's no processed foods.  That's no fuel-wasting imports.  There's a little animal protein, but a whole lot of doctor-recommended plant-based items.  I'm pretty certain that this is the secret to my enviable blood pressure.  I'm pretty certain this is why I'm 7 pounds down on the scale without having really tried..  I'm absolutely certain that that was the best Saturday night pizza in town, no holds barred.  And I'm absolutely certain that if I bank the pennies that I pinched this week, I can handle with aplomb any curve ball life might decide to throw.

So Bon Appetit, fellow cheapskates!