Friday, January 30, 2009

Eating for Optimal Health

A friend has requested some posts on gluten-free diets but before I do that I need to step back and talk about optimal nutrition, of which being gluten-free is an important part. Thus begins a series of posts on eliminating processed foods and sugars, and we will then specifically deal with the issue of gluten.

My mother was diagnosed with Celiac disease years ago which is an inability to digest food because the small intestine has been damaged by gluten, a protein formed when wheat flours come into contact with water. When people with Celiac go "gluten-free" or stop eating gluten, their intestines can begin to heal and they can start digesting their food properly. This requires the elimination of breads, pastas and anything made with processed grains, i.e. flour.

Another remedy for intestinal problems that emerged in the 1960s is called the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which eliminates complex sugars and starches from the diet. The only allowable sugars are those naturally occurring in honey, fruits or milk. The SCD has been found to cure or aid a number of diseases such as Crohn's, IBS and Colitis.

A similar way of eating for health is Dr. Atkins "Revolutionary" Diet which calls for the elimination of complex carbohydrates (flours, sugars, starches) from the diet until maximum weight loss is achieved. Then certain carbs can be consumed until weight gain recurs and this demonstrates the allowable amount of carbs in that person's diet for the perfect balance.

Is this starting to sound repetitive? The common culprit in all the above dietary solutions is processed foods and sugars. If you were to live in a bountiful place just outside of "civilisation" where there were no grocery stores or food manufacturers, you might eat some grains you grew in a field. But the majority of your diet would come from meat and dairy from animals you farmed or caught and fruits and vegetables you grew or picked yourself. You would very likely not be overweight and would not have diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other diseases plaguing most people in the developed world.

This is not just my subjective opinion, because many scientists have catalogued the health of indigenous people all over the world who were free of diseases until people from developed nations moved in and brought with them their processed foods and drinks. Shortly thereafter, the indigenous people became ill and started to suffer from new diseases. This is the case with Canada's First Nations people who are now hugely at risk for diabetes, also for the Sioux and Pima Indians in the Southern US. Many medical experts are still muddling about trying to determine why these indigenous people became so fat and theorising that they're now sedentary since we pushed them onto reservations. But the most impactful change they've undergone is a drastic change to their diet. Read more about how the introduction of processed foods to indigenous peoples' diets has desecrated their health as documented by Dr. Weston Price in the 1930s, the studies discussed in Uffe Ravnskov's Cholesterol Myths, and many other studies can be found in medical journals.

While most of the medical profession is still fixated on telling us to eliminate saturated fats from our diet, they all must concede that elimination of processed carbohydrates from the diet (not green vegetables) leads to weight and fat loss. And while fat loss may not be everyone's goal, good health certainly should be. The most popular diseases today generally present alongside individuals who are overweight. Doctors are recommending weight loss to reduce their risk of disease and so obesity and overweight themselves seem to be predictors of disease.

They are looking at the problem backwards. What is causing us to be overweight is what's also causing these diseases: diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and more. What helps us to reduce weight also helps us regain our health, and our #1 enemy should be processed foods. We've existed for millions of years eating foods from animals, and plants, and we've only recently begun turning plant and grass seeds into the bulk of our diet (as flours) and our health has suffered drastically in this same period. I think it will only be a matter of time before doctors will start to shift their focus to the real source of the problem.

Monday, January 26, 2009

More Hate On Boxed Cereal

I've gotten a good response to my last post on healthy breakfast options which do not include cold cereal. Yesterday I was directed to a site that summarises a great article called "Drop That Spoon" published in the Guardian back in June. Unfortunately the copyright expired so the article is no longer on the Guardian's website. However, here's a blogger who has posted a link and some excerpts.

It's always nice to find you're not the most extreme person in your milieu. Thank god, for the Internet, where one's milieu stretches as far as the Internet signals can pulse. There are far worse things to say about puffed, flakey cereal than what I've written and the above article steps right into the muck. A worthwhile read.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dish of the Day: Healthy Breakfast

This one goes out to my mom friend Kim who commented how difficult it is to have a breakfast that is free of processed or refined foods. This is very true when we think of the traditional breakfast of cereal with milk, which so many of us opt for each morning. However, there are lots of other, better choices. WARNING: I'm going to veer off into serious holistic nutrition territory now, but I promise to return to reality.

Cold cereal as a typical breakfast choice is a modern invention thanks to the last century's focus on the mass production of foodstuffs. Before this, people would make breakfast from whatever raw materials they had at home. And in many parts of the world, this is still the case. In Asia, people often eat rice, fish and eggs for breakfast. But in North America we tend to eat processed cereal, like Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Special K, and so many more. These flakey cereals are made by taking refined flour and mixing it with sugar, salt and then vitamins and minerals are added. This paste is then heated up and shot through an extruder that squishes the batter into puffy, crunchy bits that are then dried and placed in a box and shipped off to grocery stores. Knowing this, it's easy to see that this might not be the most nutritious way to start off your day.

What it is, is a quick and easy way to eat before rushing of to work. Convenience and efficiency have defined our eating habits in the recent past, much to the detriment of our health. Since the the second World War when many women joined the workforce, industry found a highly profitable new market in selling fast foods to busy homemakers who still wanted to serve home-cooked meals to their families, but who had less time on their hands. This spawned the era of cakes in a box, TV dinners and canned, processed foods. Flash forward 60 years and now we don't even question buying foods in a box or a can. We rarely look at the long list of ingredients that help preserve this food in its container, nor do we think about the many things that were done to this food before it arrived on the grocery store's shelf.

We were designed to eat fresh food, not dead, dried foods, and I strongly believe in trying to eat foods that closely resemble the way they came off the plant or animal that produced them. Doing so can often stand in opposition to a fast-paced lifestyle but there are still many ways to eat fresh food and not spend hours in the kitchen.

In the morning, a better option than boxed cereal would be to eat whole grains or even non-grain foods for breakfast. Porridge made from grains such as millet, rice, oats, wheat can take a bit more time to make but will naturally have more nutrients. One way to speed up the process of making porridge is to soak it overnight and this can even include a bit of fermentation that occurs when leaving grains out and in contact with water and a bit of salt, vinegar or yogurt. The fermentation process will start to break down the food, making it faster to cook, but also unlocking more of the proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Most granolas are made from whole oats and dried fruits and eaten with yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit, this becomes a balanced start to the day. Those who like to bake can make nutritious muffins in advance which are convenient to eat in the morning but you'd need to have a glass of milk and a fruit to balance this out. I've blogged before about taking last night's starch and turning it into a yummy porridge which is a quick easy meal.

Of course, you could always cook up an egg, some wholemeal toast, have some meat on the side, if you like your animal proteins. This choice of meal - low in carbohydrates - will keep you from feeling hungry for many hours since it avoids a huge insulin rush to store away these sugars, and the subsequent blood sugar drop which revs up your hunger once again.

It turns out there are a number of options for a non-processed breakfast meal that may require a bit more work and a new way of thinking. But it's your health we're talking about. Aren't you worth it?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dish of the Day: Cauliflower Mac n' Cheese

File this one under "Stealth Method" because this is sort of a cheaty way of getting veggies into little mouth: mask them by incorporating them into their favourite food. Luckily my babes like cauli already but this would be a great way to introduce cauliflower skeptics to the mild vegetable, assuming they like macaroni and cheese.

Now, this is different from hiding veggies by pureeing them into foods like soups or stews. These vegetables are in plain view. But from the perspective of taste, cauliflower goes very well with cheese sauce; we often eat it that way at home. And to put it in with the macaroni simply boosts the vegetable quotient of your side dish and thus the entire meal.

I bought President's Choice Blue Menu Mac n' Cheese for a number of reasons. The pasta has whole wheat in it, the cheese is real, there's no tartrazine (a food dye I avoid) and it's lower in sodium. I LOVE PC's Blue Menu. Anyway, I used 2/3 of the pasta from the box, put in a cup of cauliflower and added in 1 TBsp of aged white cheddar of my own when making the sauce. I also let it sit for five minutes so the cauli could get completely coated with cheese. The family approved, because there it's all gone!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Omega 3 Baby

I used to be the only one in this family who appreciates sardines but now the Bug is on my side. Thanks to my Dad's Italian background, I acquired a taste for sardines on toast. Today I decided to give some to the Bug to see if she'd like them and true to her carnivorous nature, she gobbled them down.

I served them to her on bits of dry whole wheat toast. If you'd like to get your kids to try this omega 3-rich fish, you may want to serve them on their own, or on toast, or you may want to add something to enliven their strong flavour a bit. Try making a toasted sandwich with mayonnaise and relish or mustard and putting some mashed sardines inside. I don't recommend ketchup - ever - as I believe it really smothers any food it contacts, whereas other condiments tend to add and enhance flavour.

Not every child is going to like sardines but it's definitely worth trying if only to broaden their palate with a variety of different tastes. And if someone else in the house (i.e. an adult) doesn't appreciate these lovely small fish, make sure to ask him or her to remove themselves from the table or remain poker-faced during any tasting. That way they won't negatively influence a young eater's experience.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dish of the Day: Butternut Squash Surprise

The surprise here is that the squash is for breakfast. I do love a warm, savoury sweet meal for my first meal of the day during the cool months. This is a great way to use leftover squash from last night's dinner in a new delicious way.

Fill a saucepan with about 2/3 cup of squash and add 1/2 cup of whole milk. Also add in your spices: 1/4 tsp cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom are good choices, and raisins. Warm on the stove (or use a microwave to do this in the bowl if you are so inclined) and place in your bowl when it's the desired temperature.

I like to add in pumpkin seeds or a nut at this stage too. Drizzle with honey for the perfect sweet finish.

For babies under one year, you mustn't use honey and you probably will not want to add in milk. You can warm the squash and then add in breast milk to the baby's bowl. Also, no raisin or nuts due to choking hazard or possible allergies.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dish of the Day: Omelettes

Omelettes are a great way to have a quick and easy meal as long as you don't have a problem with eggs. I'll remind readers that I'm of the opinion that natural foods (i.e. unprocessed, in their natural state) are good for you and I don't avoid eggs, whole cheeses, milk and yogurt or meat products. These are rich foods, however, so we don't eat them all the time.

If you enjoy eggs, why not whisk up two or three with 1/3 of a cup of milk and throw them in a frying or saute pan? All you need next is some yummy fillings. We had leftovers from our veggie tray from the party so I chose broccoli, tomatoes and green peppers. I prefer some flavour to my vegetables before adding them to the egg mixture so I put a little olive oil in the pan and then threw in chopped garlic and the diced peppers and broccoli to saute for a few minutes. Then I removed them and put the egg mixture in the pan. When the egg was mostly cooked, I added in the cooked vegetables, diced tomatoes, some aged cheddar and fresh basil. I folded half the egg over and put a lid on the pan for almost one minute. Then it was time to plate.

What a way to take leftovers and quickly turn them into a warm delicious meal!

I forgot to take a photo of the dish and so the image above is of this bizarre item I bought at a novelty store. You crack the head open on this egg-shaped fellow and fill his head with water and place him in the sun. He will grow a small plant with words printed on his leaves. Kind of a Sea Monkeys for the New Millennium.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Healthy Birthday Parties for Kids

Our Bug turned one this week and we threw her a birthday party today. Or rather, we had a bunch of friends and family over for lunch and we sang songs for and gave presents to her. I'm not sure she realised it was in her honour. Nevertheless, a good time was had by all.

I put a lot of thought into a cake recipe that would be tasty for adults and not too sugary for the babes. I decided to go with an old family standard for banana cake with some modifications. I doubled the recipe to make it a double layer cake and substituted orange juice concentrate for sugar. I also used spelt flour in place of white. See the recipe below.

We were also challenged by what to put in the pinata I bought. I stuffed with a few Organic Baby Mum-Mums (thank you Jen, yes they are a better option!) But then I couldn't put in lollipops or mini chocolate bars since there was no way I'd allow babies to eat that. I put in a couple of granola bars for my 6-year-old. I added in a couple of toys but it was a pretty empty pinata. Well, it was a nostalgic choice at best. And we didn't destroy it so we'll try again next year!

Recipe for Baby Banana Cake *see asterisk for modifications

- Oven to 350 F
- Cream 1/4 cup butter and 3/4 cup sugar* -->use 1/4 c whole cane sugar or Rapadura and 1/2 c orange juice concentrate)
- Add in 2 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 cup banana (is generally two), 1 tsp. orange rind
- In a separate bowl, mix together 2 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1 tsp. baking soda
- Add to wet, alternating with 1/2 cup buttermilk or yogurt* -->use regular, not low-fat sour cream to keep moisture levels low when substituting juice concentrate for sugar
- Bake in 9" greased pan for 30 - 40 minutes

NOTE: whole egg and milk products not recommended for children under 1

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting Kids to Eat a Balanced Meal

I read this essay on the weekend and had to laugh. It's by a man who remembers being obsessed during his childhood by junk foods since he was forced by his healthy parents to eat a strictly nutritious diet. I wonder if my kids will be so desperate for these types of foods that they'll become junk food junkies. I tend to be strict about desserts for the children and we don't bring junk foods into the house. I don't feel like a Green Food Ogre, and I hope they won't look back as adults and see me that way.

However, it must be said that when the author of Forbidden Nonfruit grew up in the 1970s, schools and daycares did not drown kids in empty processed foods as much as they have recently. I feel like I must serve very healthy meals at home to balance out my first grader's "white foods" diet on weekdays.

But I digress. Many parents dread dinner time because it involves a lot of fighting to get kids to eat healthier choices like green vegetables. Many wonder "how can I be sure my children are eating the healthy choices I offer them at home?"

The first answer to this question is to make it a routine to serve a nutritious meal for the whole family: not just for kids, not just for parents, and not all of a sudden because "we're on a diet". Then you need to make sure that you're pressuring kids to eat any particular foods on offer. This prevailing wisdom, attributed to Dietitian Ellyn Satter 30 years back, means that parents get to control what food is offered to kids, and kids get to control which foods they eat and how much. No pressure means no power struggle. This presumes, of course that you're offering your kids a range of healthy options at mealtimes. After that, you need to sit back and allow your children to manage what goes into their mouths.

I'd say that we mostly follow this in our family. The Bug is easy because she loudly begs for anything and everything that's within sight and not nailed down. Her older sister, however, is a pickier child and so I try to stay within her comfort zone.

While I often ask her to try a new food (and she can spit it out if she hates it, but rarely does), I don't often serve her food I know she will dislike. Why do something that we know will set up a conflict? Thankfully she gives me a pretty wide range of approved vegetables. And she's come up with this amazing habit of eating her veggies first, all by herself! But when she say she's full, we usually don't push her to eat more; even if we think she's not really full but just not wanting to eat a particular food. As long as she has eaten some vegetables I'm pretty happy and that's it for her for the evening.

So if you haven't done so already, consider the possibility of letting go a bit at dinnertime. If you are offering healthy choices and a variety of colourful foods throughout the week, your kids should be getting the right amount of vitamins and nutrition, unless they are on a hunger strike.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Volumetrics: Great Big News for Big Eaters

I love this very visual concept. I was watching TV the other day and saw some national diet company advertising their new way of eating called Volumetrics but in fact this term was coined by a nutritionist called Dr. Barbara Rolls back in 2000. The Volumetrics plan is all about eating lots of healthy food with emphasis on fibrous fruits and vegetables which are big in volume yet low in calories. We often talk about eating foods that are calorie-dense (packed with a lot of calories for their size) but that's not an image that easily sticks in one's head.

People who really need to diet often do not enjoy going on a diet because they think that it will mean eating piously and having an empty stomach. But eating healthfully doesn't mean going hungry. And lots of vegetables on a plate can be quite filling. As long as there is a balance of a protein source and enough healthy fat to accompany it, a large plate of veggies can keep even big eaters feeling satisfied for many hours.

To demonstrate, which would fill you up better: this small slice of pizza?

...or this huge salad?

They probably amount to around the same amount of calories, although NOT if you add a lot of salad dressing to the veggies. And I don't know about you, but I have rarely eaten just one slice of pizza. It goes down so quickly - sometimes you hardly need to chew - that it seems like too short a meal with only one piece. Whereas a very large salad requires a lot of chewing, and chewing, and lots of cutting of pieces with a knife, and then more chewing. After 20 minutes of that, you're likely full.

So I encourage all dieters - and everyone else of course! - to stick with the veggies. They're your best friend.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Vegetarianism for Babies?

As a nutritionist, I've worked with all kinds of clients and worked with some very specific dietary needs. Some of my vegetarian clients have asked me about how to fulfill their babies' needs while adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. This sets up a conflict because most parents want to give their babies the best possible start nutritionally, but don't want to compromise their own dietary beliefs. At this point, I suggest that they plan to stick to their ideals when it comes to their choice of diet, but to hold off on asking their child to do the same until he or she is 3 years or older.

Why? Because being a vegetarian is a very personal choice, as well as an ethical one. Children are not capable of letting their parents know their feelings about such a complex topic until they are at least able to understand where their food comes from, to exhibit empathy and to modulate their own emotions (otherwise known as being able to "hold back" when they really want to do something).

Also, you have to consider that babies and toddlers traditionally get most of their nutrition from mother's milk for the first couple of years of life, and this was the norm until formula started being commercially produced in the 1960s. Mother's milk is the perfect nutrition for a baby and it is an animal by-product. A growing toddler needs a steady diet of fat and protein as well as the many vitamins and minerals available in fruits and vegetables. It's possible to get protein, as well as iron, calcium, and even zinc from plant food sources, but it requires a lot of cooking and balancing of food types (e.g. beans with rice) to ensure they are present in the diet each day. It's also impossible to get Vitamin D or B12 from a vegan diet without supplementation.

Unless their religion mandates it, most vegetarians choose this noble path because it feels right for them. Different people have different bodies which require different foods. I believe that some folks need a small amount of heavier, animal-sourced protein in their diets for their bodies to function well. There are many omnivores who are horrified by the ethical issues surrounding the modern treatment of livestock, but still feel compelled to eat animal products occasionally because they feel their bodies require it. Fortunately for these folks, the SPCA and others can show them which companies treat their livestock fairly resulting in kinder and healthier egg production and poultry, for example.

On the other side, in addition to the emotional effects of eating meat, many vegetarians simply find themselves feeling better, lighter, healthier on a meat-free in diet. To those vegetarian parents, I say "give your son or daughter the chance to make the same choice." Our children are their own persons and just as we should not impose our own dislikes and likes upon them, we should not dictate what they should eat, especially while still very young. I'm not suggesting that parents hold back on sharing their beliefs and the hard facts about how animals are treated in modern farming practices, but only when the children are able to truly understand and cope with these harsh realities.

I was very excited when my 6 year-old stepdaughter took an interest in vegetarianism, helped perhaps in part, by her vegan babysitter. We had several discussions about the sad way that animals are treated so that we can buy plastic-wrapped portions of meat at our grocery stores. I encouraged her to think about this and said that at any time if she wanted to stop eating meat we'd find her lots of yummy foods that were animal by-product-free. However, she realised that this meant giving up a lot of her favourite foods and decided that this wasn't her path right now. I sure wish that vegetarian product manufacturers made more kid-friendly foods (i.e. can we tone down the spices please?!) but that's a topic for another post altogether. And I'm already afraid my baby is a full-blown carnivore. Whenever we have meat at dinner it's the first thing she gobbles off her plate and grunts for more. But like the rest of the family, I can appease her with vegetarian alternatives each week. When it's time, she too will learn where her food comes from and she'll be encouraged to make up her own mind about what she puts on her plate.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dish of the Day: Italian Strata

Those of us living in large cities will hear the word "strata" and most likely think of condominium associations. However, a strata is a wonderful Italian dish that is a lot like a lasagne-quiche. Or, an omelet-bread pudding. Or an omelet-pizza. Well, it must be tasted before you can truly understand but it's a delicious egg-based dish that's perfect to serve at a party. Which is what I did today, New Year's Day.

I was trying to come up with a dish that could be prepared in advance and then popped into the oven the morning of the party and I recalled that 2 friends I knew from years ago used to make oven baked egg-based dishes over the holidays. Both were rich, savoury delights that tasted as if they'd been slaved over, but didn't take much of the cook's time the day of a party. I did some research online and came across this recipe at a fellow blogger's site that reminded me of the strata an Italian friend's aunt used to make. This version, however, was a healthier version I could feel comfortable serving, due to the addition of yogurt in place of the traditional whipping cream. Do check out Choosy Beggar's recipe above, but the variation I made was slightly different.

I took 8 large slices of stale peasant's bread from the Portuguese bakery next door and buttered one side and placed it BUTTER -SIDE DOWN in my large casserole dish. NOTE: if you decide not to butter the bread, make sure you butter the entire bottom of the casserole dish so the bread doesn't get baked on. I then took 400 gms of thickly sliced prosciutto and diced it and 1 cup of chopped zucchini and added this to the dish. I did go with Havarti but added in a handful of freshly chopped basil and poured the egg mixture over it all. I used 10 eggs, 3/4 cup yogurt, 2 Tbsp dijon mustard and 2 1/2 cups milk. Into the fridge it went overnight and by morning this was a sight to behold! The combination of egg, garlic, basil, cheese and prosciutto smelled amazing he second it went into the hot oven and everyone in the house got very excited!

Omega eggs are very healthy and we try to eat them at least once a week, and apart from this dish having quite a lot of cheese and salty ham, I would not consider it at all sinful.

The strata looked, smelled and tasted gorgeous, yet defied an accurate description. The picture above does not nearly do it justice. I encourage you to make this for your family and see for yourselves.