Cashews! Raw! Toasted! Yum!

Cashews  come from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, and are funny looking seeds that grow singly on the outside of a fruit called a cashew “Apple”. The seed is shelled to give us the creamy cashew snack we know and love. Cashews are high in magnesium, which is important to help us absorb adequate calcium form our diet. An ounce of cashews also has 2/3rd of our daily does of copper, not something we usually think about, but copper is important in collagen and elastin – components of our skin and connective tissue.

Cashews are high in fats which can go rancid at room temperature or after heating, so for best results, buy small amounts of raw cashews frequently and store them in the fridge. If you want them toasted, toast them yourself fin small batches. You can also make this delicious cashew cream! (Thanks Carie!)  as a delicious dairy cream substitute.

Spinach – Popeye was right.

Spinach belongs to the amaranth family and is related to beets, swiss chard  and quinoa. It is a highly nutrient 
dense
 food and has large amounts of fiber, Vitamins A, B, C, K1 (clotting) Folate, Calcium, Magnesium and Iron. It also contains carotenoids such as lutein, essential for eye health and protects against macular degeneration.  Per calorie, spinach does have more protein than ground beef. 100 calories of ground beef has 10 grams of protein while 100 calories of fresh baby spinach has 12 grams. Percentage-wise, spinach is 30%protein (and the rest fiber, phytonutrients and water) while ground beef is 40% protein (and 60% fat).

Raw spinach contains the full complement of nutrients including heat- sensitive vitamin C and Folate, so using spinach as salad base, throwing it into soup at the very last second or blending into smoothies will give a full complement of these nutrients. Another way to eat large amounts of spinach is to bring olive oil to a medium heat in a deep skillet, add garlic and let it sizzle for  a few seconds, then add lots of spinach tossing it with tongs for about 20 seconds until a wilts a little. Add a squeeze of lemon, a scattering of salt and pepper and serve immediately, or as a wilted warm salad. A few pine nuts, pumpkin seeds or walnuts on top are yummy. Spinach is one of the most pesticided foods, so buy this one organic.


Sumac – the local vitamin C spice, and Za’atar.

Sumac is a tangy spice locally available, but not commonly used. It grows everywhere in the northeast and has a sour citrusy flavor enhancing whatever it’s on, reducing the need for salt. Sumac is high in vitamin C and antioxidants – it’s deep red color gives it away. The ground form can be found in natural food stores and Sumac is a tangy spice locally available, but not commonly used. It grows everywhere in the northeast and has a sour citrusy flavor enhancing whatever it’s on, reducing the need for salt. Sumac is high in vitamin C and antioxidants – it’s deep red color gives it away. The ground form can be found in natural food stores and online but it’s easily found in Maine in the woods if you are walking around in the Autumn. Staghorn sumac has velvety branches and red cones that stand up in midsummer to late fall. Avoid the ones by roadways that may have absorbed pollution,  and any sumac with white berries (poison sumac). Dry the cones (made of “drupes”, like raspberries or blackberries) or store them in a paper bag in the fridge. Grind dried drupes in a mortar and pestle and voila! Your own ground dried sumac! Add to lemonade for extra vitamin C tang. You may also  steep 2 T of the drupes from the cone in hot water, or make a sun-tea. This method of tasty and nutritious beverage extraction has been used by Natives in the area for millennia. You can also use the sumac to make Za’atar (ZAH-tuhr), a Middle Eastern spice blend made of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, cumin, salt and pepper, with some variations also adding oregano, coriander and aleppo pepper. (recipe here).  It can be sprinkled on grilled vegetables, meats, grains, cooked vegetables and hummus,  and is frequently seen on Middle Eastern-style toasted breads.


Up in (liquid) smoke


We had a discussion at the Healthy Potluck about smoky flavors in food, and sources thereof. Since according to the World Health Organization, there is no safe level of bacon, plus; vegetarians, we wondered what else could be used to impart such a flavor to dishes. Here were some things I discovered; Make some Lapsang Souchang tea and add a few teaspoons to your recipe. Smoked ancho or chipotle chiles  are an option if you like a kick to go with your smoke. Smoked paprika and smoked salt (use at the end, or things might get too salty before they get smoky)  are also available and can impart depth to your recipes. There is also a product called “Liquid Smoke” and if you have sensitive smoke detectors in your house, this might be a good solution. It’s made from filtered condensation from a  smoky hardwood fire. Be careful – apparently a little goes a long way. It was suggested to add it to a spray bottle and spritz the recipe, stir and then taste before adding more.

Helpful Hemp

Seeds are delicious and healthful and hemp seeds are one of the most nutrient-dense foods in this category.  They contain large amounts of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins E and B, and the minerals Fe, Zn, Mg, P, K. Like soy, they are also a complete vegetarian source of protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids – the ones we cannot make. A tablespoon of hemp seeds contains about 3 g of protein. The seeds contain no psychoactive component, so you don’t have to worry about failing any drug testing at work. You can consume them as hemp milk, or do what Dr. Andrew Weil does:  toast hemp seeds in a dry skillet until they start to pop, then add olive oil, salt and pepper, or a combination of soy sauce garlic and ginger. These seeds can then be eaten as is, or scattered on top of a salad or stirred into steamed veggies.

Reduce your Plastic Footprint

So-called “disposable” plastic. The wonder of the 1950′s has become a current scourge. Here are some creative ideas to reduce your purchase of packaging and single-use plastics at the grocery store and at home. Put 2-3 big re-useable grocery bags in your car and put up to 10 pre-used plastic bags in them for vegetables, fruits, bulk and other foods. Fabric mesh bags can be reused indefinitely and easily washed in the laundry. Bring your own bottles or containers to the Portland Food Co-op (at the little plaza on Congress and India streets) and refill them with honey, maple syrup, olive oil, dish soap, laundry soap and other cleaners, vinegars and tamari. Glass bowl with lids allow you to store foods without extra plastic in a number of ways. Refrigerating leftovers in a bowl with a plate on top works well. I save all my plastic bags and reuse them for fridge and freezer storage. Plastic yogurt containers and glass jars can be used in the freezer if you let things like soups cool before freezing them, leave a bit of space at the top for expansion, make sure they are upright in the freezer and then put the lids on after freezing. Get creative and experiment! Let us know what you find out! Bonus action: Here’s a link to ask Trader Joes to escape from their plastic dependence!)


Fiber: Soluble and Insoluble

Fiber is an umbrella term that describes two types of carbohydrates made by plants. Insoluble fiber is structural and surrounds a plant cell like the rigid scaffolding around a building. If you add water to insoluble fiber, nothing happens to it (think celery).  Soluble fiber is not structural and turns into a mush or gel when water is added (think oatmeal or psyillium)  and both types help keep things moving in the intestines. Neither types are digested by humans, but soluble fiber is digested by your gut bacteria and helps provide for a happy biome. Soluble fiber also picks up bile (made of cholesterol) in the gut and prevents it’s reabsorption, thus transporting it out, and regulating our blood cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water, passes through relatively unchanged and simply adds bulk to the larger intestinal contents. Its important to have enough fiber in the diet to keep the intestines happy and moving. For a normal adult female, this is 21-25 g. For a guy, 25-30 g. How much is this?  1.5 C broccoli has 7g. 1 apple has 4.5 g. A head of lettuce has 13g. 2 Tablespoons of Psyllium has 10 g. 1 cup of brussels sprouts 3.3 g.  Animal products have ZERO fiber, because animals are not plants.

You can search this site for fiber content of foods: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calorie-chart-nutrition-facts


Bee Pollen: For the bees?

Bee Pollen is one of those mysterious “natural superfoods” that has had many claims made of it, and from what I can tell is simply another great way to separate people from their money. These claims of boosted athletic prowess, immunity and vitality have not been scientifically substantiated. The only thing that science has to say is if you are allergic to bees or their products, stay away from it.  One guy had increased bleeding when taking both bee pollen and a blood thinner (Warfarin/Coumadin). I don’t put a lot of faith in situations with and N=1, so this effect might be a mulligan. It’s obviously the perfect food for bees, but at this point, there is no evidence to suggest that humans derive any benefit other than perhaps a psychosomatic or placebo effect. Try honey instead.

Foods for fighting the cold and flu season

First off, wash your hands. Second, stay hydrated. Get a flu shot if that works for you. But then, why not use your diet to boost protection from upper respiratory tract infections? It’s a form of medicine that you can access up to 3 X a day. Create delicious recipes using the following foods:

Vit C from oranges, tomatoes, red peppers, spinach and Vit D from egg yolks or supplements (no sun source here from Sept – May)

Probiotics from fresh yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir

Antioxidants from blueberries, ginger, green tea, dark leafy greens and dark chocolate (**70%+ gives you theobromides with less sugar)

Zinc from fish, shellfish, almonds and cashews

Allicin from Garlic (presqueeze it 5 min before to allow for the chemical reaction to activate it)

Adequate dietary protein to build antibodies

water water water.

And lastly, wash your hands.


Vitamins - Is timing everything?

When is the best time of the day or night to take vitamins or supplements?  Well, the most efficient answer is “whenever you remember to take them”, but this could be broken down into more specific times. You want to give your body the best shot at dissolving the tablets or capsules and absorbing the tablets, so food and water accompaniments come in to play.

Vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) are best taken with some food to dissolve the nutrients. B vitamins boost energy, so best to take them in the day time. Multi-vitamins are usually pretty big and should be taken with a lot of water to break them down. In the past, I have crushed them in my mortar and pestle and added water and drunk them down. Trouble here is that they don’t taste very good. Also; don’t take them with fiber powder, or they may not have a chance to dissolve and be absorbed. Liquid versions of multi-vitamins and minerals are also available and might offer a better chance at absorption. You can add those to smoothies as well. Taking supplements with food is the best bet bet due to absorbability and some multis will cause stomach upset if taken on an empty stomach. If you have to take more than one of the same vitamin (say 3 tablets of vitamin C, then if you can remember to spread them out over the days, that will allow you the best absorption. Your body won’t store it and simply eliminates the excess through the kidneys. Talk about pissing your money away!

Bottom line: if you are taking supplements, the best time to take them is 1) whenever it’s recommended by your medical professional 2)  spread out over the day and with food, and then 3) whenever is best for you***. Create a ritual and stick to it even if you are traveling. I take psyllium and lemon juice plus a vitamin C in the morning,  then the rest of the vitamins with lunch, and ground flax with more lemon at night. (advice from Dr. Weil)


Hydration and Cold Weather

It’s important to keep drinking water in cold weather, even though we feel abut 40% less thirsty. Breathing cold drier air dehydrates us faster than in the summer. We exhale 100% saturated air, losing water with every breath.

How much of you is water? Turns out, less than I originally thought. Babies are born at about 78% water, though at year 1 this drops to 65%. Healthy adult females are at about 50-55% whereas adult males are at about 60% (women have more water-exluding adipose tissue). Water proportions are broken down as such: blood plasma is mostly water at 92%, lungs are 83%, muscles and kidneys 79%, brain and heart 73%, skin 64%, and bones 31%.  

Water’s body functions involve shock absorption, lubrication, temperature regulation, digestion, and dissolves and transports every nutrient and waste product in your body. 

If your blood volume drops because you are dehydrated, the heart has to work harder to circulate the blood thus increasing your blood pressure. Be careful of dehydrating drinks such as alcohol, carbonated soda (sparkling water is fine) and  more than your usual amounts of caffeinated drinks. Try room temperature or warmer water for increased absorption. Amounts are about 6-8 cups or 2 liters a day for most healthy adults. More if you are exercising, and even more if you are exercising outside in the cold.


Fantastic Flax

Flax seeds have a  host of nutrients that are helpful to our bodies. There are both brown and gold flaxseed, and they can be used interchangeably.  Flax contains lignans – a class of nutrient that when broken down in our body have many beneficial actions. 1) anticancer agents, 2) phyto (plant-derived) estrogens that could be an alternative  or additive to soy in peri- and menopausal support, 3) antioxidants preventing free-radical tissue damage and 4) Lignans have a cardio-protective LDL-lowering and HDL-increasing effect. Flax also contains soluble and insoluble fiber, so much so that it’s advisable to take it with liquid. Just put a tablespoon of ground flax seed in a glass and add 2 tablespoons of water and watch what happens! It can be even be used as an egg-replacer if you run out of eggs, or are cooking for someone with an allergy!

Flax seeds contain fiber and precursors to omega-3 fatty acids, which can expire or become damaged, so it’s best to buy smaller amounts to maintain a fresher supply. Flax oil will not give you the fiber benefit, and also has a higher probability of going rancid and so must be refrigerated. Flax seeds last in fridge 12 months in an opaque container, or 6 months pre-ground in the freezer. But it’s probably best to buy a little coffee grinder at Reny’s for $12.99 and grind your own fresh. Serving size: 2 tablespoons a day, or 1/4 C three (or more) times a week, ground and sprinkled on salads, whipped into smoothies or soups. Grind it, or it will pass right through, giving you no nutritional benefit. (link to Dr. Andrew Weil’s thoughts).  Some have been concerned about cyanide content of flax, but studies have shown that it’s about the same level as cashews, almonds and some other plant products and that the human body breaks it down harmlessly if not overconsumed (more than 8 T a day).


Michael Pollan's Food Rule: Avoid Food Products that make Health Claims

"This sounds counterintuitive, but consider: For a product to carry a health claim on it's package, it must first have a package, so right off the bat, its more likely to be a processed rather than a whole food. Then, only the big food manufacturers have the wherewithal to secure FDA-approved health claims for their products and then trumpet them to the world. Generally, it is the products of modern food science that ake th boldest health claims, and these are often founded on incomplete and even bad science. Don't forget that margarine, one of the first industrial foods to claim it was more healthful than the traditional food i replaced, turned out to contain trans-fats that give people heart attacks. The healthiest food in the supermarket - the fresh produce - doesn't boast about its healthfulness, because the growers don't have the budget or the packaging. Don't take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing to say about your health." From the book by Michael Pollan: Food Rules.
(BTW, Michael Pollan rules IMHO. He's the one who coined the 7 word mantra to live by: "Eat Real Food, Not too much, mostly vegetables". )

Is “Low Fat” healthy?

First off, we need fat to survive. It’s one of the macronutrients along with protein and carbohydrate. How much depends on your lifestyle, but about according to the Mayo Clinic, about 20-35% of your daily caloric intake should be fat. Approximately between 40-78 g/day with less than 22g being saturated fat. I tablespoon of peanut butter has about 8 g of fat, a tablespoon of olive oil, 14g. So the normal daily intake is actually quite reasonable, (if you are not eating the Standard American Diet and lots of deep fried things).

Fat became vilified  in the 60′s and 70′s when a link was found between dietary fat, heart disease and weight gain, so the knee jerk reaction was to reduce ALL dietary fat. The mantra became fat = bad, carb = good. We now know that it’s much more complicated than that. We don’t need large amounts of fat, but we definitely need it for healthy skin, hair, hormones, cell membranes, and many other things.

So what is a Low-Fat food anyway?  “Low-Fat” foods have been processed and modified to chemically or physically remove naturally occurring lipids. High in energy, fat also tastes good. It dissolves a lot of flavor molecules, so things that have large amounts of fat tend to make taste buds happy. If you take fat out of a food, you have to add something back in so that it’s palatable; sugar and artificial flavors., The mantra became fat = bad, carb = good. Perceived caloric deficit of low-fat food was met with a frenzied no-holds-barred increase in overall food intake, so instead of losing weight, US’ers gained weight, died of heart disease more than ever, and also more diabetic. Whoops.

Processing of foods creates fats that can cause inflammation in our systems: trans-fats, elevated omega 6′s (very readable article here) which manifest in atherosclerosis and obesity. The final most recent outcome is that low-fat has been shown to be low-health. Reasonable amounts of fat from real food (nuts, seeds, avocados, fish, plant oils) is part of a healthy food paradigm. As usual, the solution is not rocket science, it won’t sell tons of books, nor is it a magic bullet diet or pill answer. Eat reasonable amounts of real food. You knew it all along.

Define “Healthy”

Merriam Webster defines healthy as; 1) free from disease or pain,  2) showing physical, mental, or emotional well-being, 3) beneficial to one’s physical, mental, or emotional state. I would go further in this definition of healthy to include “beneficial to one’s environment and community”, because that so immediately surrounds and influences us (think food, air, mental and emotional state etc.).

Let’s examine this definition in terms of “healthy food”, which has been completely obfuscated and upended by mixed messages from media, the medical community and other non-medical entities that want you to not trust what you already know, and therefore sell you things. But you know what healthy food is. It’s simply real food. Don’t let people who want to sell you unneeded things confuse you. The more confusion, the more money can be made selling magic bullets, diets and programs. Writer Michael Pollan has summed up my approach on healthy food succinctly: “Eat Real Food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables”.

Break it down…

Real Food = less processed. Processed means chemically treated in a way that prolongs its shelf life and therefore it’s inedibilty to microorganisms, which, by the way also live inside you and help you digest your food. Processed food is found in the center of the grocery store , usually encased in plastic or cellophane or other types of packaging and has lots of sugars, preservatives, and trans fats to disguise the flavor of the shelf-life prolonging chemicals.

Not too much = moderation and portion control. Basically eat slowly, chew a lot, and stop when you’re full. Drinking water helps too.

Mostly vegetables = Foods that have excellent mixtures of fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins and phytochemicals mixed with lower amounts of carbohydrates to sustain healthy human bodies and lower disease risk. “Mostly vegetables” also means fats and proteins have a place, but they are just not center stage in a healthy diet.

Eating this way means lower amounts of sugar (in all forms, pure, simple and complex carbohydrates), fat and salt, and also means higher amounts of food that will allow your health span to equal your life span.

***my pet peeve: as per AHD: “Some people insist on maintaining a distinction between the words healthy and healthful. In this view, healthful means “conducive to good health” and is applied to things that promote health, while healthy means “possessing good health,” and is applied solely to people and other organisms. Accordingly, healthy people have healthful habits.” I use healthy and healthful interchangeably. In fact I never use the word healthful. I find it too precious. But that’s just me.

The soothing scent of Lavender

Lavender is a lovely scent that has now been shown to act on parts of the brain that reduce anxiety. Linalool (lin-a-loh-ol) is a prime component in lavender scent and when wafted at a bunch of stressed mice, they calmed down. Lavender- treated mice acted differently than ones treated with anxiety-reducing drugs, they didn’t seem to experience any side-effects and were generally happier. If the mice couldn’t smell, they did not experience the beneficial effect, which points to the complex interaction that odors have on the brain. It is a common experience to be transported by a familiar or comforting smell, or to have a vivid memory triggered by particular odors. Lavender, being associated with relaxation might be a great gift for the holidays, so here are some ideas that could be used to send out comfort into the world.

Lavender sachets for clothes drawers, or eye pillows. If you are a sew-er, make a lavender sachet for a clothes drawer. Zip up a square of fabric and fill it mostly with rice and throw in a teaspoon of dried lavender flowers before you close it up. Make an 8 x 4 rectangular version for a lavender eye-pillow. Non-sew sachets: just take a square of fabric, put the flowers inside, gather the edges and tie it up with a pretty ribbon.  If you are in the kitchen, throw some lavender flowers into a steaming pot of water on your stove to infuse the air with a gentle scent as well as some humidity as the air seasonally cools and dries. And I’m definitely going to try to make a happy version of these flourless chocolate-lavender cupcakes.  I’ll keep you posted!

Healthy Hallowe’en

So if you are like me, you avoid Halloween. But if you just can’t, here are some ideas that might help you put your money where your healthy ideals are: Carabiners (Maine Hardware), bouncy balls (Dollar store), glow bracelets or necklaces (not thrilled about the landfill, but they are pretty cool plus keep little trick or treaters illuminated), mini keychain flashlights, fake mustaches, little tubes of bubbles,  themed cookie cutters, fruit leather, Packets of pretzels along with trail mix or salty roasted almonds depending on how nut-avoidant you wish to be. If you absolutely must go with candy, try  an organic supplier - organic candy, or little Clif brownies bars. If you are parents and wish to avoid the post Halloween diabetic surge: 1) buy them out. Yep, a pure and simple bribe. Exchange money for the candy. Unless you know they’ll just buy more candy. Another option – barter the remainder of the candy they bring home for the thing your kids have REALLY wanted recently (not a puppy), or a really cool T-shirt or experience. Win-win! Unless you opt for the puppy.

Familiar cooking oils – what to use when

Fats are important macronutrients; we need them to survive. Its important to not be intimidated by fats, to know how to use them for the best nutrition outcome as well as facility in the kitchen.

Having a variety of cooking oils on hand is important because they have different “smoke points”, or temperatures at which they burn. The smoke point is determined by where the oil comes from, how much processing the oil has received and how long they will be subjected to heat. Less refined oils burn more easily, but have more flavor and nutrition. Use these in recipes that require no or cooler cooking. Examples would be Extra Virgin Olive Oil, affectionately known as ‘evoo’, which has great flavor and a low smoke point of 325F. Walnut oil or pumpkin seed oils also have low smoke points (320F) and are best not cooked at all – use these less refined flavorful oils in salads, drizzles, dips and marinades.

Butter has a low smoke point, 325F, due to it’s protein content, but has great flavor. If it won’t be long in the pan, butter can be used. It’s counterpart, clarified butter or ghee is very stable up to 450F. I have both in my kitchen.

I also use coconut oil, which has a higher smoke point of 350-400F and could be used for sautéing or stir frying and imparts a delicious coconut flavor to stir fried vegetables or shrimp. Canola oil is quite refined with almost no taste. It has a smoke point of about 425F  and will not affect the flavor of the dish you are creating. So does refined or ‘light’ olive oil. Peanut oil is refined and has a high smoke point of 450F. Use it when making popcorn or frying foods for longer than 1-2 minutes. I use it mostly when stir frying. Other high smoke point oils are safflower and soybean, but these are usually very refined and I don’t do any deep frying, so they are not part of my kitchen. I have recently fallen in love with a crispy chick pea recipe that requires about 5 minutes of sautéing. I usually choose coconut and watch over it at over medium heat.

Sleep – A macronutrient

We all need sleep. In fact if we don’t get it, things get mighty peculiar. There are some strange folks who seem to need less sleep, and those who need more. How much do we really need, and how do sleep patterns affect our lives?

Why we need sleep remains elusive and many theories abound. The most logical to me is the replenishment and repair theory. During physical downtime, housekeeping molecules such as hormones are manufactured and topped up, and infrastructure like muscles and bones are mended since the body is not using them while we sleep.

In terms of metabolism and weight, sleep influences the hormones leptin (satiety/fat-burning) and ghrelin (hunger/fat-storing). Adequate sleep boosts leptin and diminishes ghrelin at the right times, balancing your energy intake with activity requirements. Sleep deprivation results in mismanaged timing and levels of these hormones such that we feel hungry when we aren’t really, and store energy as fat when we should be burning it.

Optimum sleep amounts for adults is 7-9 hrs a night and more for children and adolescents. Ways to help sleep include; daily exercise (best to wait 3 hrs after exercise to sleep), less screen time before bed, stress management and lower caffeine, among others.

Ginger!

Autumn is a great season for warming foods and ginger is a delicious one. Flavorful and therapeutic, ginger with over 400 known chemical components, has long been known for soothing digestive issues and improving overall health. If you buy fresh salmony-pink ginger (locally grown by Frith Farm) you’ll experience a very mild flavor generated by  ‘Gingerols’ . Older ginger or dried ginger products like powdered ginger are dominated by more pungent ‘Shagaols’. Ginger has been studied and documented both historically and currently for it’s health benefits.  It has been identified as a modulator in blood clotting, blocks carcinogenic activity, as well as benefiting the inflammatory system via it’s inhibitory effect oneicosanoids (inflammation-response molecules). Bonus: ginger protects the stomach lining while having it’s anti-inflammatory effects, unlike NSAIDS.

There are some wonderful recipes out there: ginger chai teapumpkin gingerbread, (I tried this one, but futzed with the recipe a bit. I omitted the sugar, added a tad of stevia and drizzled a small amount on honey when serving), and here are some savory ones. One of my favorites is Golden Milk, which you can make with any type of milk (cow, rice, coconut, soy…) heated in a pan, plus a knob of freshly grated ginger, a teaspoon of turmeric, a smidge of black pepper, and honey. I have put this recipe on my  http://emmaholder.com/happiness-sweet/ page.