July 30, 2011

Links I Like

Happy Saturday! It's a beautiful morning here in Seattle, and I hope it is equally fine where you are (what we've been lacking in heat I know that much of the country has had in excess). Lots of nutrition-and-health news goodness this week, and here's my picks of the litter:

  • The big nutrition news this week was, of course, McDonald's announcement that they were giving a slight healthy tweak to their Happy Meals (adding 1/4 cup of apple slices, deleting half the French fries). That spurred a vigorous and not always friendly "debate" among healthy food advocates about whether this was a too-little-too-late PR stunt/preemptive strike (another take on that here) against harsher government regulation or an actual step in the right direction.
  • Should junk food be taxed, and the proceeds used to subsidized vegetables? A great opinion piece by Mark Bittman discusses that very idea. Check out the related timeline of the Standard American Diet.
  • Bittman does it again with his Opinionater piece on "Irradiation and the 'Ick Factor'" Interesting, informative and balanced.
  • Would you rather have more low-calorie over-processed food, or less food that's real and real tasty? Apparently most dieters would go for the first choice: more, more, more.
  • As a supporter of local, healthy, real food, this article about the struggles of the Harvest Table, the Virginia restaurant run by Steven Hopp, husband of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle author Barbara Kingsolver, saddened me. It also made me want to go out to dinner in Virginia.

On Monday, I'll talk about the final chapter in The Slow Down Diet. Next week, I'm starting in on Jan Chozen Bays' Mindful Eating.

July 29, 2011

I'm such a cheater

OK, I was going to try to stick to FIVE cookbooks from my library that I thought would be good for newbie cooks, but I didn't quite make it. Unless you count technicalities. Which I am! My winners either have lots of recipes and no photos (the "encyclopedias") or lots of how-to photos and descriptions of technique (the "cooking schools") or short ingredient lists, pretty photos and recipes that will please just about anyone ("accessible").
The Joy of Cooking. I actually only acquired this book a few years ago, when I was looking at my mother-in-law's copy and commented that I actually didn't own it. Guess what I got for Christmas that year? This book is, of course, an encyclopedia of just about every type of recipe. I use it extensively as my go-to for how to cook things. I learned how to properly cook a roast from this book, and when I hadn't made soft-boiled eggs in forever, this was the book I cracked to double check whether to put the eggs in cold water or boiling water (bring to boil, gently put in eggs, return to boil, immediately reduce to simmer) and how long to cook them (4 minutes for large eggs). No pictures, but the completeness of the book makes it a worthy volume for cooks of all experience levels.
Everyday Food. Here's the first technicality: I'm including two volumes, Fresh Food Fast and Great Food Fast. Like "Everyday Food" magazine (which the recipes in these books are pulled from), the recipes are tasty and accessible without being boring. Ingredient lists are short. There are only a few how-to photos in the back of each book, but each recipe does have a photo of the finished dish, which I know a lot of people really like in a cookbook.
Martha Stewart's Cooking School. All hail the Queen of Domestic Pursuits! This isn't an encyclopedia in the same way that Joy of Cooking is, mostly because it includes fewer recipes, but it includes detailed lessons on "Stocks & Soups," "Eggs," "Meat, Fish & Poultry," "Vegetables," "Pasta," "Dried Beans & Grains," and "Desserts." It has sections on kitchen equipment, knives and seasonings, and a lot of how-to photos. Some of the recipes are basic, others are "fancy," so a new cook could really grow with this book, and a more experienced cook could pick up some new tricks, too.
How to Cook Everything. If the title wasn't clear, this book from Mark Bittman is another cooking encyclopedia, with appetizers, desserts and everything in between. Need to know how to cook quinoa? It's in here. A classic osso bucco? Ditto. It has a nice little section about how to outfit a basic kitchen, too. Like The Joy of Cooking, it has no photos, but you can't have this many recipes and photos and confine the book to one thick volume!
Jamie Oliver. My second and final technicality. I could not decide between Cook with Jamie and Jamie's Food Revolution. The first book is Jamie's "guide to making you a better cook" with "a whole load of simple and accessible recipes that will blow the socks off your family and any guests you might have round for dinner." Can't argue with that! I've cooked a bit more from the Food Revolution book, which actually has more how-to photos. The food is fresh and delicious, and the recipes aren't complicated. Some recipes include some slightly exotic ingredients, but there is something in this book for everyone, and the tone and presentation is so friendly and confidence-building that it's a real gem.

July 28, 2011

Why I like to cook

In pondering my ardent support of home cooking, I started thinking about why I feel so strongly that we should be preparing more of our own meals. I realized that my firm convictions are founded more on a reaction against restaurant eating than for home cooking, per se. I mean, while I do enjoy the process of cooking most of the time, sometimes it does feel like a chore and sometimes I would rather be doing something else (and then there's the dishes you have to wash afterward).

Here's my beef with restaurants: It would be very, very difficult to eat in restaurants frequently and be healthy. Not impossible, but very difficult. Basically, you would have to:
  • Have enough disposable income to eat at restaurants that use fresh, local ingredients with a minimum of the pre-made soup bases and other industrially produced shortcuts that many restaurants use.
  • Have the discernment to choose the healthiest dishes from the menu.
  • Have the willpower to stop eating before becoming full, no matter how much food was served to you.
Hard to do? Yes. That's why I think restaurants are best reserved as treats, not a form of daily sustenance. You know, the way it used to be in the "olden days." Even the better restaurants (with few exceptions) do not base their business model on being healthy. They base it on filling seats and selling as much food as possible. To achieve those ends, the food needs to make people want to eat more of it, in that visit and on subsequent visits. So even restaurants that use quality ingredients will likely use more fat, sugar and salt than you would at home.

There was a time when Jeff and I ate in restaurants a lot. Some nice restaurants, but a lot of the "upscale casual" chain restaurants, too. And a fair amount of fast food. I've eaten at McD's once since 1999, and BK twice (and once was a salad). As the years have gone by, I've added more and more restaurants to my "never again" list, because I realize that their food is either a) kind of gross, b) overpriced for what you get or c) no more satisfying than what I could make at home.

Observe the photo at the top of this post. That was last night's dinner. A to-die-for egg salad that I've made twice before on a slice of crusty bread from Whole Foods. Dandelion greens from yesterday's Full Circle box tossed with a warm vinaigrette (olive oil, white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper). Peas from our garden, boiled very briefly and tossed with good-quality butter and salt and pepper.

Really, other than a few favorite ethnic restaurants, an occasional jaunt to a local bakery for a scone or croissant and a few great sandwich spots I like to go to once in a blue moon, I have no love for restaurants anymore. Been there, done that, and I'm so over it. I like to know what it is I'm putting in my body, and restaurants offer too much mystery in that regard.

So imagine my dilemma when Jeff and I realized that our 15th wedding anniversary is coming up in a few months (followed closely by the 20th anniversary of our first date). That calls for a celebration, right (especially since I was in a cast and on crutches for our 10th anniversary)? A trip is out, since I'll be in the middle of the school term with my nose stuck in a book. A fancy restaurant date? That thought did not fill me with joy. I don't like the idea of spending the amount of money it would take to have a really memorable meal, but if we're going to dine out, I certainly don't want it to be mediocre!

Yesterday, Jeff texted me with a brilliant solution: Whole Foods! We can choose a bottle of wine, put together salads and an appetizer plate at the food bar, pick out a piece of meat (I'm thinking lamb chop) from the meat counter and have them cook it to order. There are any number of wonderful, small-portion desserts in the bakery, and the espresso bar is conveniently located right next to the dining area. Perfection! We can eat exactly what we want, in exactly the portions we want. We know the ingredients are high-quality, we're not paying restaurant mark-ups...and while we'll have to bus our own table, we won't have to do dishes!

Hmmmm...didn't quite make it to the tips for the newbie cook. I guess I got distracted. As a consolation prize, I did add more volumes to my Cookbook Library page, and tomorrow I will offer some suggestions for some cookbooks and recipe-based websites that would be great for newbies, whether it's yourself or a son, daughter, niece or nephew who is starting out in the world.

July 27, 2011

I'm bringing cooking back

Oh yes I am. One person at a time, if necessary. Did you see the news today that about one-third of the calories kids eat each day are from fast food and other takeout food? (You can read the original research article here.) No wonder we have 9-year-olds with "adult onset" diabetes! 

Does anyone cook anymore? With all the Food Network shows and celebrity chefs (and their branded sets of cookware), one would think that there was a whole lot of cooking going on. But the sad reality is that cooking has, at best, become a spectator sport for most of us, in the same way that forensics is a spectator sport for "CSI" junkies and physical activity is a spectator sport for fans of "Monday Night Football" and "Dancing With the Stars."

I was mentioning to Jeff the HUGE variation in cooking skills among my fellow students in my summer Molecular Gastronomy class. Some of those students will be starting grad school with me in the fall, in nutrition and dietetics. He was incredulous. "Why would someone who can't cook want to be a dietitian?"

I don't really have an answer for that. For me, nutrition and home-cooking are so deeply entwined that I can't  imagine nourishing myself day in and day out without being able to cook. There is nothing more nourishing or caring than preparing even the simplest of meals for those you care about (including yourself). There's nothing nourishing and caring about bringing home food from a drive-thru. That's just a lot of packaging and a lot of grease.

It's an amazing thing to take a handful of ingredients and turn them into a tasty, healthy dish. It's like alchemy. OK, occasionally it's a disaster, but usually it's like alchemy. And even the occasional disaster isn't really the end of the world, unless you're playing with really expensive ingredients. For years I didn't really know how to cook beef or pork, partly because I was a near-vegetarian when I was learning to cook, and also because meat can be expensive, and I was afraid to screw it up. The fear of messing up beans and rice doesn't carry the same weight.

Somewhere between the post-World War II advent of convenience foods and the mainstreaming of two-income households, women stopped cooking. Even worse, they didn't pass on their languishing cooking skills to their daughters...or their sons. In a Utopian paradise, when women started bringing home some of the bacon, their menfolk would have started helping to fry it up in a pan. I think it's pretty clear we don't live in a Utopian paradise.

My mother worked (not always full-time) and she cooked (not fancy French meals or anything). So I grew up being exposed to home cooking, even though I don't recall ever helping out in the kitchen (other than when it was cookie-baking time). More than once in our married life, Jeff has said to me, half-jokingly, "Didn't your mother teach you anything?" No, not really. I entered into adulthood with the idea that dinner did not come from a drive-thru window and that it did involve vegetables, but lacked the skills to confidently assemble a meal. I'm pretty much self-taught. In the beginning, there were more disasters, less alchemy, but with the wisdom of hindsight I can see that I aimed too high some of the time.

When I'm a dietitian, I'm not going to stop at helping people learn how to eat healthfully. I'm going to help them learn how to cook. I'm going to make sure they have the skills to cook and/or assemble simple, healthy meals for themselves and their families. It's not enough to tell people to eat their vegetables and choose whole grains instead of refined grains if they don't know what to do with them!

Tomorrow: More on why home cooking will save the world, and some resources for the cooking newbie!

July 26, 2011

Lean in your jeans...or your genes?

I think we all know at least one person who is skinny as a rail but eats rubbish, is allergic to exercise and brags about how "I can get away with it...I must have good genes, or something."

If you care about that person, I suggest you say something like, "Whoa, Nellie!" or "Not so fast, Skippy!" What look like "good genes" may in fact be "lean genes." And those aren't good. They aren't good at all.

Last month, researchers reported on a newly identified gene that is linked to having less body fat AND and increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Specifically, the gene, known as IRS1, leads to unhealthy levels of cholesterol and glucose in the blood. And it turns out the "lean" part of this "lean gene" only applies to subcutaneous fat, aka fat under the skin. People with this gene easily carry harmful levels of fat around their internal organs (visceral fat). It's long been known that while being overweight or obese can be harmful to health, it's excess visceral fat that can be especially dangerous.

This gene discovery fascinates me for many reasons, but especially because it may well explain why some skinny people get type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, because it typically developed in middle age or beyond (as opposed to type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease that almost always begins in childhood). But with the current obesity epidemic, even children are now developing type 2 diabetes, when their young bodies become so trashed by junk food, lack of physical activity and excess body weight that their cells don't respond to insulin properly, allowing an excess of glucose (sugar) to build up in the blood stream and wreak havoc.

Anyway, in spite of the fact that there are strong links between overweight/obesity and type 2 diabetes, not everyone who gets this form of diabetes is overweight. And that's been a puzzler. This "lean gene" may be the missing puzzle piece. [I don't know this for sure, but I eagerly await the additional research that will come out of this gene discovery.]

The take-away is this: While many of us do our best to eat right and be active so that we can reach and maintain a healthy body weight, the size of our jeans is not the only reason to live healthfully. None of us knows exactly what protections or potential time bombs our genetic code holds. Even if we did know, that code is not absolute. The habits we adopt and the actions we take each day affect our health, for better or for worse. A healthy lifestyle can, in some cases, stop a "bad gene" from expressing itself. An unhealthy lifestyle can stop a "good gene" from expressing itself.

What you do for yourself and your current and future health...it matters. And your size and shape only tells one part of the story.

If you'd like to read more, there are articles here and here. And for any science junkies lurking, I found a PDF copy of the actual study here.

July 25, 2011

Without further ado...

Did you see? Did you see? I've finally posted my cookbook library! Well...a big chunk of it, anyway. I discovered Amazon's "Shelfari" feature totally by accident late last week, and it looks way prettier than the simple list of books I was going to post. A lot easier, too...the thought of building almost 200 links was not thrilling to me.

Soooo...I spent a lot of time last night working on this, so you're getting robbed of a post today. I have a good one for tomorrow, so never fear.

I made it through the weekend without making any recipes. We had a lot of tasty leftover salads to eat, and we grilled some chicken on Sunday. I'm feeling really tired of meat right now, with all the meat-related experiments I had to eat up last week. Fortunately, my class is turning to plant foods for the next two weeks. I have got a LOT of reading to do: seven chapters in Harold McGee's book (almost 400 pages!), plus about 50 pages from Herve This. Gulp. Good thing I don't have any ambitious cooking plans right now!

July 24, 2011

Summer School: Tell your own tale

When it comes to food, health, weight and body image, many of us have quite a story to tell. I suspect this is even more true for women than for men (especially the body image part).

So, who is the author of your story, the writer of the screenplay of your life? If it's not already you, then you better pick up that (metaphorical) pen!  In "The Metabolic Power of Story" chapter in The Slow Down Diet, Marc David suggests that we all share the same nutrition story:
You're born, you eat, you die.
Yeah, I guess that's pretty much it! You can't change the beginning or the end of that story, but what are you doing with the middle? What story are you living...and who created it? David points out that each of us has nutritional free will, and to create the right nutritional "middle," we need to understand the purpose of why we eat the way we do, and question whether it is supporting our life "mission statement."

In other words, decide why you're here on this planet, and then decide what manner and style of eating, exercise and nourishment will best help you be your best as you fulfill your mission, whether it's to care for and nurture your family, excel at your chosen career, or save the world.

When you are trying to eat and be healthier, you have an idea in your head of what your life will become if you stick to your goals. David calls this the "dietary ending" of your personal nutrition story, and he suggests not waiting to live the scenario unspooling in your head. If you think being healthier will make you happy and more confident and give you more energy, then choose to be happy and confident and have more energy now. 
"Do you really believe that weight loss will come any easier if you're living out a story that produces the physiology of self-judgement and negativity? Do you honestly imagine that the right nutritional approach will grant you more energy if the story you live along the way continues to drain it?"
I like this idea. Too often, we fall into the trap of imagining that "things" will be better tomorrow. Why not have a better today? Live it, be it!

My nutrition and food history, like many people's carries a lot of judgement and criticism, both self-inflicted and inflicted by others. Judgement and criticism doesn't feel good. It makes you feel sad, small and victimized. Not a very good place to be if you want to make positive, healthy changes in your life, is it? It can be hard to pair self-love and acceptance with an objective understanding that there are steps you need to take to eat better, lose weight and be healthier, but I think it's a mental place well worth working toward. Love yourself enough the way you are right now to want to be even better. Don't decide that you will only love yourself once you are better. 

July 22, 2011

We interrupt the regularly scheduled program...

Happy Friday! I'm postponing writing about the latest chapter in The Slow Down Diet until tomorrow, because it was a pretty meaty chapter and I'm still working through it. I'm also skipping this week's "Links I Like," because this week was a touch light in nutrition news, and the few links I did like, I like so much that I want to actually write about them. So that's that!

On the home front, I'm doing something radical next week: I'm not using any recipes! If you think this is blasphemy from someone who owns nearly 200 cookbooks (and as many cooking magazines), just wait...there's more. I plan to spend some of the time savings I net working on a long-overdue project: My cookbook inventory. Ah, the irony!

I will be cooking, but I will be leaning heavily on dishes I don't need recipes to make, as well as the simple, lighter fare I've been craving now that it looks like summer is actually reaching the Northwest. If anything strikes me as particularly noteworthy or inspired, I'll share it, naturally. Honestly, I've probably made more new recipes in the past six months than I have in the previous two years. It's been fun, but at the moment it's feeling like pressure. So I need a little breather. It will be fun to peruse my cookbooks without thinking, "Should I make that? Or that? Or THAT?"

July 21, 2011

Amaranth: The grain that's not a grain

You read that right. Amaranth isn't a grain. Like quinoa, it's a pseudograin. Or you can call them seeds, because that's what they are.

I mentioned the other day that I cooked up a pot of amaranth on a whim. What I didn't mention was that, once it was done cooking, I looked at it and thought, "What in the heck am I going to do with this?" You see, amaranth doesn't cook up into nice separate "grains." It ends up sort of like little grains suspended in gelatin. Not something you can make a nice grain salad or pilaf with.

Of course, I'd forgotten this property of amaranth when I chose its jar from among the many contenders on my pantry shelf. Quite frankly, amaranth is one of those healthy foods I've flirted with for years and rarely actually made a date with. It's gluten-free, high in protein (a particularly digestible form) and high in calcium, magnesium, iron and other minerals. It has a good amount of fiber, too. (You can find some nice information about it here.)

I recalled making a rather disappointing hot cereal with it once (disappointing because of the other ingredients, not because of the amaranth itself), and decided to take another run at the breakfast idea. And it turned out really, really great!

I've never had Cream of Wheat or Cream of Rice (although I almost bought some recently, mostly because the idea of it seems so comforting), but my whole-grain concoction is similar to what I imagine those other cereals to be like. It was smooth and creamy, yet the tiny little amaranth grains/seeds retained their individual texture. A pleasing combo!
When I cooked the grains the other night, I brought 2.5 cups of water to a boil in a heavy saucepot, then added 1 cup of amaranth, reduced the heat to a simmer, and put the lid on. I cooked it, undisturbed, for 20 minutes (I've read that you do not want to overcook amaranth!).

To ready it for breakfast, I scooped my desired portion into a small saucepan, added some milk, one-half chopped banana, cinnamon, vanilla extract, a pinch of salt and a few raisins and warmed it over medium heat. As it cooked, I ended up adding a bit more milk...the exact amount depends on your preference. I stirred it until it was sufficiently warmed through and the bananas had kind of melted into the mixture. Then I topped it with some shredded unsweetened coconut and a dollop of nut butter, as I usually do with my oatmeal.

Needless to say, I'm quite glad that I happened to give amaranth another chance. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

July 20, 2011

Porcine adventures

Well, Meatfest 2011 continues, this time with a primo-tasty recipe from Plenty. This was the first book I cracked when I was trying to decide how to cook the one-and-only loin roast from our half-share of local pork. The minute I saw the words "garlic," "rosemary" and "fennel," I knew I had a winner.
The fact that this recipe was prepared in advance, only needing to be popped out of the fridge a while before popping it into the oven, also made it a winner, in my book.
My roast was slightly smaller (3.5 pounds) and was not boneless, but the recipe worked perfectly, and I'm sure it will with a boneless roast, too! I served ours with a pile of braised greens (via Full Circle) and a few more shelling peas that I was able to harvest from the garden after work.

Roast Pork Loin, Porchetta Style
Serves 6

4.5-pound boneless pork loin
6 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, crushed
4 rosemary sprigs, leaves chopped, plus more for the roasting pan
about 8 bay leaves
olive oil
salt and black pepper
  1. Lay the pork on a board, flesh side up. Make incisions all over with a sharp knife and fill with the slivers of garlic. Rub the fennel and rosemary all over, along with olive oil to lubricate, pushing bits down inside the slits. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  2. Make a bed in a roasting pan with rosemary springs and the bay leaves, and lay on the pork, fat side down. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
  3. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Tie the loin at intervals with kitchen string (not too tightly; it should hold its shape, but not look like a sausage). Put into the roasting pan, fat side up, on top of the herbs (make sure these are under the pork, or they will scorch) and cook for 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F and cook for 1 hour 40 minutes, basting every so often.
  4. Check to make sure it is properly cooked; the juices should run clear with no trace of pink. If you have a meat thermometer, cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees F). Take out of oven, cover with foil to insulate, and allow to rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

July 19, 2011

Whirling dervish

What a difference a day makes. Sunday positively felt like fall, with gray skies and rain off and on most of the day. Other than taking the dog for a long walk and a swim, we didn't leave the house. I didn't even do any gardening, because everything was just too drippy. 

But today was sunny and warm, and my energy level was through the roof. I made the most of it after work by getting busy in the kitchen.
First I made basil-arugula pesto (with walnuts, garlic, olive oil, salt and a little Parmesan).
Then I made hummus. Since I hate cleaning the food processor, whenever I make pesto or puree greens, I make hummus (or another bean spread) right after. Any pesto taste in the hummus is minimal. So I get two tasty concoctions, but only have to clean the processor parts (including that nasty blade) once!
Then I cooked up a small pot of sprouted bean medley...
...and some amaranth (totally random...I stood in front of the jars of grains in my pantry and pretty much said "Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe").
And then I shelled enough peas (fresh from the garden) to give me an actual green thumb.
I'd marinated a steak in lime juice and salt (we had some limes that needed to get used up, stat!), which Jeff grilled up along with a head of escarole, cut in half, brushed with a little olive oil (on the cut side) then sprinkled with salt and pepper.

This week's menu is a little meat-heavy for dinners, what with my at-home labs for my Molecular Gastronomy class...and a few other items (including a pork loin roast) I'd pulled out of the freezer before I knew what was on the lab agenda. Thus the cooking frenzy of veggies, beans and grains. Must have balance in the food universe!

Speaking of which, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) came out today with their "Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change + Health." Here's a quick list of the highlights.
  • Eat less meat and dairy.
  • Eat "greener" meat when you do eat it.
  • Eat more plants.
  • Waste less meat.
  • Eat lower-fat dairy products.
I don't necessarily agree with the last point, but I've long been on-board with the rest. I don't believe that eating meat is a problem. What is a problem is eating too much meat and dairy, especially factory-farmed meat and dairy, and not eating enough vegetables. And wasting food is just bad all around (not that you should eat more than you need in order to avoid waste...just try to buy what you need, and no more).

July 18, 2011

Fat: It's a good thing (sometimes)

OK, I did a pretty interesting kitchen experiment last night for my Molecular Gastronomy class. Here's what I did:
  1. Made three 4-ounce patties (one each) of extra-lean (less than 9% fat), lean (16% fat) and regular (20% fat) ground beef and pan-fried them (without added oil) until they were medium done (155 degrees internal temperature).
  2. Made three more patties, browned them on each side, then added 1/4 cup water (to braise them) until they reached 155 degrees internal temperature.
Once that was done, I taste tested them (Jeff helped so I had a second opinion). After that, we ate the remains of the pan-fried experiment with sides of braised greens, beet salad Jeff's home-canned dill pickles.

I was shocked at how mouth-moisture-suckingly dry the extra-lean ground beef patties were (fried AND braised). And how little flavor they had (no seasonings were added to any of the patties). And to think that, back in the day, we used to buy extra-lean ground beef almost exclusively! Of course, now I know that meat flavor comes from both amino acids (from proteins) and aromatic molecules found in fat. Less fat = less inherent meat flavor.

Our taste-test winner was the lean ground beef. It was moist, tender, and had really good savory, beefy flavor. The regular ground beef was similarly tender, but it had an oilier mouthfeel. It was equally beefy, but had an extra element of flavor that seemed to be simply "fat."

So in the interest of getting maximum pleasure from food while still eating for good health, I would suggest going for moderate fat in your burger and maybe eating them less often (if you've been an extra-lean sort of person). I bought my extra-lean and lean ground beef from Whole Foods, my regular from Trader Joe's (because Whole Foods didn't carry it!). I didn't use the ground beef from our 1/4 steer share because I don't know the exact fat content (I'm sure it falls in the "regular" range, though).

We never pan fry burgers, we always grill them. I sort of suspect that this reduces the fat content (via drippage) enough that our "regular fat" beef ends up tasting more like the lean beef. But that's an independent experiment for another day!

As always, I recommend seeking out quality beef (small herds from a local small farm is idea, organic from a larger producer is next best). Fat can really absorb toxins, pesticides and the like, so when allocating your grocery shopping dollar, going for quality meat and dairy (if you eat them at all) is money well spent.

July 16, 2011

Links I Like

Links are late this week...I was off doing girl things like shoe shopping and getting my hair cut. After walking the dog in the pouring rain. But the sun is shining now, and I hope you are having a nice weekend. Lots of great stories in the world of nutrition and health last week; I've narrowed it down to my top 5, but there are others posted on my Nutrition By Carrie Facebook page.

  • The obesity epidemic is complicated, and the issues of assessing "fat fees" is complicated, too. What it seems to come down to is this: Is being obese a "choice" in the same way that using tobacco is a choice. Both are harmful to health, but is obesity a behavior or a disease?
  • Think "fat fees" are controversial? Try the suggestion to take extremely obese children away from their parents. Here's another opinion from obesity expert David Katz. Here's the original editorial from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • Is it possible to be so obsessed with healthy eating that it becomes...unhealthy? This is a question I've pondered often, so I was all over Marion Nestle's take on the issue.
  • I have regular arguments in my household about whether people choose to eat fatty, sugary junk food, or are driven to eat these foods by impulses they may not be aware of. This article bolsters my belief that, sadly, the latter is true for many people.
  • It saddens me to no end that the Mediterranean diet is being thrown over for burgers and sodas by young people in Mediterranean countries. It parallels what I've read about the younger generations of Okanawans, who have adopted a Western/U.S.-style processed food diet and are developing all sorts of health problems in middle age that their parents and grandparents, who still follow the traditional Okanawan diet, don't have, even though they are decades older.

July 15, 2011

Summer School: French Style

Happy belated Bastile Day! We had a lovely simple repast of crudites with a dip made from arugula (from the farmer's market), olive oil and salt pureed in the food processor, plus...
...crusty baguette (also from the farmers market) sandwiches with brie and French ham (from Whole Foods) and dandelion greens (from my Full Circle box) with a Dijon-mustardy vinaigrette. For dessert, we had...
...macaroons (also from Whole Foods). These weren't authentically French, but close enough. I was craving coconut. The evening soundtrack consisted of Putumayo's "French Cafe" compilation, the "Amelie" soundtrack, "The Triplets of Belleville" soundtrack and Pearl Django's "Le Jazz Hot."

Eating things like baguettes, brie and macaroons can occasionally cause me angst, but I've been working on adjusting that mindset this summer, since I started reading The Slow Down Diet. This week's chapter was about "The Metabolic Power of Thought," and even though I didn't think I engaged in that much negative self-talk, I realized that I was doing exactly that more often than I realized.

It's well-established scientifically that when you're stressed (and releasing the stress hormone cortisol) your body stores more energy as fat (especially around your abdomen, where it is most dangerous). In addition, when you're stressed, you don't experience any pleasure. So when you eat while stressed, you're not getting any pleasure from your food (which could make you want to eat more later), and you could be packing away more of those calories you're eating as belly fat.

Guess what? Negative self-talk is stressful. You could be eating the most wonderful dessert in the world, but if you feel guilty about eating it and keep thinking "I shouldn't be eating this," then that dessert is going to be even worse for your body than you think it is, and you won't really be enjoying it in the first place.

In this chapter of the book, Marc David points out that there are no good foods and no bad foods, in the moral sense. Yes, some foods are healthier than others, but eating an unhealthy food does not make you a bad person. And yet, when people beat themselves up about how closely they are following a "diet," their negative thoughts are often framed exactly that way. It's either, "I stuck to my diet today, so I'm a good, virtuous person," or "I totally shouldn't have eaten that, I'm such a worthless loser."

I don't eat cheese often. I love it, but in years past we would have it in the house all the time (generally in big blocks from Costco), and we often snacked on it. That resulted in a lot of calories spent on snacks, and a lot of excess pounds on my frame. I'm really happy having it less often, and having better cheese when I do have it. (We do keep crumbled feta and blue cheese in the house for salads and scrambles, but we don't go through it very fast.) I enjoyed every bite of that brie-on-baguette, and also felt good that it was balanced with a lot of delicious veggies. And the macaroon was to die for. (I came closer to the 80 percent full goal...the macaroon took me right up to the "full" mark, but not over it.)

Another bit from this chapter of the book that caught my attention was how we either motivate ourselves by fear, or by love. Fear-based motivation would make you exercise because you hate disease. Love-based motivation would make you exercise because you love health. It may seem like splitting hairs, but I can really see how too much fear-based motivation has the power to drag you down, especially if you are having trouble reaching your goals and start in with the "I'm a failure" talk. 

[Note: I really had to think about the example above on a personal level, because one reason I am so committed to living healthfully is that I don't want to have any of the "lifestyle-based" chronic diseases when I'm older. After much pondering, I realized that I carry around a clear picture in my mind of living an active, engaged life even when I'm 95, or whatever age. So for me, I think my motivation comes from loving health.]

Here's an exercise for you: Write down everything that motivates you to eat right or exercise. Once you have your list, note next to each item whether it is motivation from fear or love. If you find that fear is driving you, you would benefit from reframing things so you are acting out of love and respect for your health and your body. Remember, you are where you are. You can't change the past...you can only move forward. Make healthy changes because you're worth it. And you are worth it!

July 14, 2011

Local pleasures

Farmers' market at my door.
Farmers' market out-of-doors!

Yesterday's highlights definitely involved local food. After a week of vacation hiatus, my weekly produce box from Full Circle arrived on my doorstep bright and early (oh, how I missed it so!). Then, after work, I met Jeff at the Columbia City Farmers Market to pick up a bit more local food goodness (raw milk, baguette, arugula, carrots0, followed by dinner at Geraldine's Counter. We had planned to do this before vacation, but our schedules had other ideas. I had yummy fish tacos!
We rarely eat out at restaurants (not counting Whole Foods), because we prefer my home-cooked meals. But when we do dine out, we gravitate toward one of a handful of small, locally owned-and-run restaurants. Tutta Bella is one, Geraldine's is another. And both are conveniently located one neighborhood away! Jeff had the Columbia City Corned Beef (aka a California-style Reuben), with sweet potato fries.
Even though it didn't seem like a ton of food, I felt way too full about a half-hour after I finished (I may have stolen a few too many sweet potato fries). I'm still working on that "eating to 80 percent full" thing, clearly. I decided that, starting tomorrow, for dinner I will intentionally take less food than I think I want or need. If 20 minutes after I finish eating, I still feel actual hunger, then I can take more. Since shooting for the goal isn't consistently working, I need to start undershooting

July 13, 2011

Love your food & let it love you back

I was doing some research for an article at work the other day and chanced upon this quote from Surgeon General Regina Benjamin:
“Americans will be more likely to change their behavior if they have a meaningful reward--something more than just reaching a certain weight or dress size. The real reward is invigorating, energizing, joyous health. It is a level of health that allows people to embrace each day and live their lives to the fullest without disease or disability.”
I could not agree more! I know all too well that shooting for a certain number on the scale or trying to fit into a pair of skinny jeans can be awfully motivating in the short term, but staying at that weight or continuing to fit into those jeans is usually less motivating. And that's when weight regain happens.

Maintaining a weight loss requires effort for the rest of your life. Part of that effort involves daily choices about what and how much to eat. From time to time, in the course of discussions with friends or family about what I don't eat anymore (or don't eat much of), I've frequently heard comments along the lines of, "Well...you need to get at least some enjoyment from your food" or "Oh, I know I should cut back on [name of food], but it's just so goooooood!"

The first comment touches on that popular misconception that healthy food isn't enjoyable. Pardon my French, but that's bulls--t. (OK, if I were actually speaking French, I would have said "quelle connerie." Yes, I looked it up.) I enjoy food, and I only eat food I enjoy. About 90 percent of the time, I eat foods I enjoy that also happen to be healthy. It's a win-win.

The second comment assumes that food is a primary source of pleasure. Here are my feelings on that: If your weight or your health isn't where you want it to be, and you know you are eating foods that you should be eating less of (whether because of the food itself or the amount in which you consume it), then you need to find other sources of pleasure in your life. Is it worth eating a pint of ice cream every night if it means you develop diabetes and have to start worrying about things like taking insulin and the threat of complications kidney failure, blindness and losing a limb?


While I was vacationing on the lovely Oregon coast last week, I read the next chapter in The Slow Down Diet, "The Metabolic Power of Pleasure." One of the (many) points made in this excellent chapter was that many healthy foods don't deliver deep pleasure while we're eating them, but the fact that we know they will benefit our health is pleasurable in and of itself. On the flip side, many foods that give us immediate pleasure can take away pleasure later by make us feel unwell or actually contributing to poor health.

I find a rich, high-quality dark chocolate mousse more pleasurable than a good salad, but I eat a good salad every day, and chocolate mousse about once a year. The subtler pleasure of the salad, combined with the pleasure of current and future good health, more than makes up for the more intense pleasure of decadent desserts.

There are three exercises in this chapter, which I think about 99 percent of people would benefit from:
  1. Make a list of all foods you think are healthy that you also find pleasurable to eat. Include at least three of these foods in your meals each day and see how you feel.
  2. Make a list of every single food that gives you great pleasure, no matter how "forbidden" it is. In the next week, eat one or two of them and really take the time to savor and enjoy them. See how you feel.
  3. Make a list of every single non-food thing (people, places, things, experiences) that gives you great pleasure. Are you including enough of these things in your life, or are you compensating with food?
That's only scratching the surface, so if the issues surrounding food and pleasure resonate with you, I strongly suggest you get your hands on this book. Life's too short to not be as pleasurable as we can make it, and life will probably be longer if we get most of our pleasure from healthy food and from non-food delights!

July 12, 2011

Some like it spicy

Last evening I staged my own little food revolution in my kitchen. A revolution of flavor. For my summer Molecular Gastronomy class, we had to do an at-home experiment on balancing flavors. While I've heard that cooks in the know can add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice, a dash of salt or a sprinkling of sugar to adjust a recipe and make the flavors really sing, it was never a skill that I sought to cultivate (it always kind of languished on my "To Do Someday" list).

Let me tell you...this experiment was a revolution AND a revelation! Who knew that a few Thai chillies, two cloves of garlic, some lime juice and fish sauce and a bit of sugar could produce such magic. Do you enjoy Thai food? If so, you need to do this experiment for yourself at home, stat! If you don't like Thai food, you could still benefit from reading the articles. I can easily see how the flavor-balancing principles will apply to any dish, from any cuisine.
The articles (all short) and experiment are from Kasma Loha-unchit's Thai Food & Travel website:
  • "Cooking 'to Taste'" discusses the importance of balancing and harmonizing flavors, especially when working with a foreign cuisine.
  • "Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors" pertains mostly to Thai food, but does make an important point about how understanding how the four basic tastes (sour, salty, sweet, bitter) interact can help you "rescue" any dish that has turned out a bit blah.
  • "Principles of Flavor Harmony" goes a bit deeper into how those basic tastes, along with spicy, really interact and affect each other. It also discusses harmonizing not just flavors within a single dish, but flavors (and richness) within all dishes being served together.
  • "Balancing Flavors: An Exercise" is the experiment my class performed. This changed the way I will cook forever, I kid you not. It also emboldened me to try my hand at more Thai dishes, which is a fantastic thing, because I love Thai food, but I've made few inroads thus far into actually cooking it. I am fairly adept with the European, Mediterranean and Latin cuisines, but not so much with the Indian/Asian cuisines.
We served the results of my experiment over stir-fried snow peas from my garden, sliced leftover grilled steak, and steamed brown basmati rice. That is something I could never do with the results of my chemistry or biology experiments. I won't even talk about microbiology.

This little learning experience will undoubtedly bring more pleasure to my eating experiences forever more. Speaking of which, tomorrow I will be talking more about pleasure and food, drawing partly from my reading of The Slow Down Diet

July 11, 2011

Who's the boss?

Hello again! I hope you had a nice week. I had a lovely vacation, camping on the Oregon coast. It's a good thing I took a planned break from blogging, because I didn't get near a WiFi connection (read: Starbucks) more than maybe once.

Anyhoo, I had fun, but I'm glad to be back. There's no place like home...especially when you prefer to avoid food temptations. It's natural when you spend a week with people not of your household to observe their eating habits and compare them to your own. Last weeks theme was lots of fruit, lots of sugar, lots of alcohol and very few vegetables. Except in our campsite, where all the veggies came to play.

My vices for the week were a little too much sugar and alcohol, but nothing crazy. We skipped some of the fatty-carby communal camp breakfasts, opting for fruit and plain Greek yogurt with a little granola. I made oatmeal for myself one morning, because I was craving whole grains. I kept our veggie intake up by making big green lunch salads for Jeff and I each day, topped with homemade hummus, cooked sprouted lentils, quinoa, avocado and homemade vinaigrette. 

My crowning achievement was the night it was our turn to make dinner. Jeff grilled some gorgeous salmon, and I prepared a trio of veggie dishes: String beans with basil-spinach pesto (I made the pesto at home before we left), caramelized onions with zucchini, and red dandelion greens with warm vinaigrette. We also served a prepared beet and red pepper salad and roasted garlic bread, both from Costco. This was NOT a complicated dinner. I parboiled the string beans ahead of time and did a quick reheat before mixing in the pesto and serving. I stood with a glass of white wine in one hand while I cooked the onions and zuch with the other on the grillside burner. I got the greens ready ahead of time so all I had to do was dress them before serving.

With a four-plus hour drive home from the campground, Jeff and I had lots of time to chat. One topic of conversation began with his observation that the adults (especially the menfolk) were scarfing down the veg. The veg wasn't as big of a hit with the three kids present (ages 6, 5 and 1), which is a shame, because the pesto was not very garlicy and the caramelized onions were very sweet (I didn't even try to encourage them to try the dandelion greens). 

From there, we pondered when and how it got to the point that so many parents lower their own eating standards in order to serve "kid-friendly" foods to their children. When we were growing up, we ate what the adults ate, with very few exceptions. Yes, there were hot dogs for dinner sometimes, and even frozen pot pies from time to time, and we ate fast food occasionally, but there were lots of veggies, and green salads, and even "complicated" dishes like stuffed cabbage and my grandfather's chicken cacciatore.

As if on cue, as I was catching up on news in the world of nutrition, I came across an article that asked the question "When did kids start to eat apart from adults?" The short answer: When food companies created the idea that kids should have their own foods, and then kids' new tastes started ruling the family dinner table. 

So I ask of all parents: Who's the boss of your dinner table? You? Your kids? Or Corporate Food America? Take back control!

Oh, yeah...look what followed us home:

July 2, 2011

Links I Like

Happy Holiday Weekend! I hope everyone has something fun planned, and that the weather is sunny (if it's been gray, like here) or mild (if you live in parts where the sun's been blistering for months). Me? I'm off to the beach! But first, some words about food, for thought:

  • In some ways, "Is Big Food's 'Big Money' Influencing the Science of Nutrition" is not exactly "news," since it's well-established that many scientists and doctors have been "bought" in creative ways by Big Pharma. But I've read less about this phenomena occurring with junk food manufacturers. This is really a shame, mostly because it contributes to the "I don't know what to believe" problems. And there are plenty of scientists doing honest research and plenty of doctors who base their recommendations on that honest research.
  • I loved "Six Habits That Can Add Years To Your Life." I'm a big believer in not just trying to live longer, but to live longer, better and healthier. The six tips are pretty back-to-basics (no magical health-promoting berries or supplements in the bunch), but serve as a great reminder about what's really important.
  • Ah, to be in NYC next month! I love a good food movie, and to see one of my favorites at MOMA would be amazing. From the list, I've seen "Big Night" (I looove Stanley Tucci), "Food, Inc.," "Mostly Martha," "Sideways," "Babette's Feast" and "Ratatouille." Six down, five to go.
  • Interesting New York Times article on whether exercising on an empty stomach burns more fat. I admit I do my morning exercise in the fasted state, whether it's weight lifting, walking, running or yoga. My only exception was when I was training for distance walking events. In that case, I usually ate a small bowl of cereal with banana and milk first. While it's true I had "fat burning" in the back of my mind, the truth is that I feel better when I exercise on an empty stomach, as long as I am not feeling serious hunger pangs.
  • Do you pâté? I don't, other than once at a dinner party. Whether pâté is too rich for your wallet or your waistline, or goes against your moral or dietary judgement, you can still enjoy "Pâtés, minus the geese." I haven't had a chance to make any of these vegetarian spreads yet, but they all look amazing.

July 1, 2011

Eating: It's all about rhythm

Well, maybe not all, but rhythm is important, as I learned in this week's chapter in The Slow Down Diet. Some of the material in this chapter didn't pertain to me much, because I already do it and do it well. I already:
  • Eat regularly
  • Balance my macronutrients
  • Plan my daily meals and snacks
  • Get regular rest and regular play
What I do need to work on is the timing of my meals. I think I feel better with a substantial afternoon snack and a light dinner, but I've been cooking a lot lately, and I find that I eat more at dinner when I cook an actual recipe. Weird. When I make something like a dinner salad, or reheat some leftovers, I eat less.

Interestingly, after snacking on gorgeous vegetables (with an amazing dip that was just pureed arugula, olive oil and salt), a few tomato-and-basil bruschetta, a whole grain cracker with a bit of cheese, and some fruit at the Full Circle focus group earlier in the week, I thought "wow, this would make a great light dinner to have at home." Some good food for thought.

The biggest revelations (for me) in this chapter were about caffeine and afternoon energy dips. I had no idea that drinking coffee on an empty stomach (which I do almost every morning, as I have a cup or two of coffee before I eat breakfast) raises cortisol (stress hormone) levels. I had also known, but totally forgotten, that we have a natural energy dip between around 2 and 5 p.m. Those two things are totally connected, because I had been drinking a cup of coffee after lunch (around 2 p.m.) to try to fight through that energy dip. I had also been continually asking myself "what's WRONG with me" because I felt tired in the afternoons. Honestly, since reading this chapter early in the week, I have had an easier time getting through the afternoons because I've accepted that my energy level will be less. I've simply made more of an effort to arrange my work tasks so I make best use of my high-energy and low-energy times.

I thought the concept of "endless summer" was pretty great. In a nutshell, this means that when we eat refined carbohydrate foods year round, we are constantly making our bodies think we are storing up energy for hibernation (because earlier in our evolutionary history, the only time of year when our ancestors had access to high-energy foods like fruit was in the summer). I don't eat many refined carbohydrates, but this "endless summer" concept fits in nicely with the portions of Marc David's other book, Nourishing Wisdom, which talks about how our diets should shift with the seasons, the temperatures and our body's needs at any given time.

I'm on vacation next week, and one exercise from this book I still need to work on from the previous chapter is eating to the point of energy. This is similar to the Okinawan concept of Hara Hachi Bu, or eating until you are 80 percent full. This has been hard for me to do. Sometimes I'm able to do it, but sometimes I think I have...but then realize that I'm a little too close to being actually full. It's a skill I really want to develop, because I think having that skill will reduce or eliminate the need to count calories or measure portions.

Next week's lesson is in "The Metabolic Power of Pleasure." Should be interesting!