Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Not being Perfect in an Imperfect World

I’ve recently met two rather incredible, smart, and very insightful new friends that have really helped me think through something I’ve been struggling with for quite some time; namely, the drive for perfection in an otherwise imperfect world. While a lot has been written about perfectionists or Type-A personalities, I’ve seen very little written about it in regards to nutrition.

I’ve always been pretty demanding and typically hold myself to pretty high standards. Unfortunately, this blog is often reflective of that. My one friend semi-jokingly calls me “the robot” as a way of pointing out my rigidness, and while having tea with my friend Gena, I came to realize that I’ve become entrenched in the “diet wars” and have become so dogmatic in regards to nutrition that I sometimes am unable to remember why I began writing this blog in the first place.

The reason why I write this blog is not to bicker about how many nuts should be consumed in a sitting or any of the other semantics that nutrition bloggers often get bogged down with. Instead I write this blog because I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and want to share that research-based knowledge in an attempt to help people find their own paths to healing and long-term health. Long time readers have been able to watch many of my thoughts about nutrition evolve over that time - particularly when it comes to oil. However, the one thing that consistently bothers me is that my posts are often written from the perspective that the world is black or white, with nothing in between  when nothing could be further from the truth in regards to nutrition.

Before I continue, I need to be completely clear. I am an ethical vegan (which is why I have never backed away from using the term) regardless of nutrition, I do not support or condone any use or exploitation of any animals in any situation.

That said, nutrition is often very complex and works in highly sophisticated ways, many of which researchers are just now starting to chart. The world is even more complex and our daily lives are nothing if not the same.

To assume that the path that worked for me will work for everyone is a foolish errand. To be dogmatic about it will accomplish nothing. Furthermore sometimes optimal health and our lives stand simply at odds with one another… and that is okay.

It’s okay to skip out on the ideal 8-10 hours of sleep once in a while to spend time with friends and family, enjoying a sweet treat on occasion has, to my knowledge, never killed anyone, and if you prefer iceberg over kale or collards you won’t be the less healthy for it. Basically what I’m trying to say is, if eating less-than-optimal means less stress, then maybe that’s the right thing to do. As my friend Maria has taught me, what’s the point of living to be 100 if you’ve missed out on some of the best parts of life?

Now I’m not saying that cookies and cakes are the best parts of life – in fact, far from it, and personally I probably won’t change my own rather rigid habits – but if you’re moderately healthy, and are trying to move towards a healthier version of yourself, it’s okay to not always be perfect. Being hard on yourself or feeling guilty about what you’ve been eating is almost never a healthy or even productive habit. 

Instead, enjoy the moment. Food, like life should be enjoyed and is always better when in good company. If you feel like you want to eat healthier then focus on learning from the mistakes rather than punishing yourself for them. Focus your energy away from being negative; instead be positive and spend your energy on making sustainable changes. If eating optimally means you feel completely deprived and depressed, than you’re hardly developing healthy or sustainable habits. Being healthy is to enjoy life, and sometimes that means doing something inherently unhealthy.  As the book of Ecclesiastes Dave Matthews says, “Eat, drink and be merry. For tomorrow we die.” 

As always the information presented in this blog is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as specific medical, nutritional, lifestyle, or other health-related advice.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Powerful antioxidant, Cinnamon

Just a short post about a spice that is probably sitting in all of your cabinets right now. Cinnamon is a culinary spice that is derived from the fragrant inner bark of a group of small evergreen trees called Cinnamomums. It is the second most popular spice used in the United States, right behind black pepper.

There are two major types of cinnamon found in the US. They are Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon is typically from Sri Lanka, and is also referred to as "true cinnamon.” While Ceylon is the predominate source of cinnamon sold in the UK, it is not the predominant spice typically sold as cinnamon in the United States. More common is Cassia cinnamon, which is typically from Burma but also grown in China and Vietnam and is sometimes called Chinese cinnamon. Cassia is darker in color and often has a stronger more pungent taste.

According to a major study done measuring antioxidants of various foods, cloves were found to be the most potent supply, by weight, but cinnamon wasn’t far behind. As such, cinnamon is an excellent food to be included into your normal diet. Evidence suggests that cinnamon has “anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antitumor, cardiovascular, cholesterol-lowering, and immunomdulatory effects.” 

That said, the distinction between Ceylon and Cassia makes a bigger difference than one would imagine. Cassia cinnamon is the main source of coumarin found in most people’s diet. Courmarin is a naturally occurring toxin which has the potential to damage the liver when taken in high doses.

Recent studies have revealed that regularly consuming Cassia cinnamon powder could be problematic, resulting in potentially harmful levels of coumarin intake. For example, Dr. Joel Furhrman, reports that one study estimated that small children eating oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon a few times a week would exceed the established safe upper limit of exposure.

Cinnamon also is high in oxalates. Oxalates have been linked to cause oxalate kidney stones which sounds rather uncomfortable to me. However, less than 10% of the oxalates found in cinnamon are absorbed, so even taking large doses of cinnamon on a daily basis shouldn’t be a problem in this regard.

Since Ceylon cinnamon has been tested as having near-zero levels of courmarin, it’s worth the time and money for American consumers to find a good source of Ceylon cinnamon. FRONTIER Natural Products Co-Op is my preferred choice as I can get it easily from Whole Foods or any other natural/organic grocer. Because of it's many health benefits, Ceylon Cinnamon is an excellent, easy and delicious way to boost one's antioxidant intake.  

As always the information presented in this blog is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as specific medical, nutritional, lifestyle, or other health-related advice.

More Reading:
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) of Selected Foods—2007. November 2007. 

M. Tang, D.E. Larson-Meyer, & M. Liebman. Effect of cinnamon and turmeric on urinary oxalate excretion, plasma lipids, and plasma glucose in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr, 87(5):1262-1267, 2008. 

Gruenwald J, Freder J, Armbruester N. Cinnamon and health. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Oct;50(9):822-34.

Fuhrman, Joel. “Choosing the Right Cinnamon,”

Friday, October 4, 2013

African Sweet Potato Stew

Even though it is 80 degrees in New York, it’s officially fall. While I’m in no rush for the winter weather to arrive, I am excited that root veggies are officially back on the menu! This dish has it all: nutrient dense, easy to make (one pan only), a great taste, and it’s incredibly filling. Making it perfect for any fall evening -even warm ones!

Between the brown rice, the beans, and the sweet potato this dish is heavily starched-based. But don’t worry, contrary to what the Aitken’s type diets claim, neither starches nor carbohydrates make you fat. This is due to the way our bodies process carbohydrates. While many argue that starches are converted into simple sugars and then stored as fat by the body; that is not how it actually works.

First it is important to note, that unlike fats which has 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates contain only 4 calories per gram. This means you will feel physically full with less calories. Basically this means starches have a low calorie density but a high satiety value per calorie.

After eating complex carbohydrates like potatoes or beans, our bodies break these carbs down into simple sugars. These sugars are absorbed into the blood stream, where they are transported to our cells and used for energy. When you consume more carbohydrate than your body needs to furnish it with energy, the body stores around 2 lbs of it, in the form of glycogen, invisibly in the muscles and liver as a reserve.  Any remaining carbohydrates are typically burned off as body heat rather than stored as fat. This is because humans are very inefficient at turning sugars into fat, a process known as de novo lipogenesis. Even simple sugars are rarely turned into fat. For example, a study found that both trim and obese women fed 50 percent more calories than they usually ate in a day, along with an extra 3 ½ ounces of refined sugar, produced  less than 4 grams of fat daily. That means it would take nearly 4 months of this overeating for a person to gain 1 pound of fat. In comparison, the average passenger on a cruise ship, dinning on high fat and protein animal foods, gain an average of 8 lbs on a 7-day trip.

Fun facts about Sweet Potatoes:
  •  Sweet potato and potatoes are two of the only foods that can fulfill all of our nutrient needs meaning they have all the protein, fats, and carbohydrates our bodies need to thrive (with the exception of some micronutrients).
  • George Washington grew sweet potatoes on his farm at Mount Vernon.
  •  George Washington Carver developed over 118 products from sweet potatoes including a glue and starch for laundry.
  • They are loaded with vitamins A, C and E as well as other antioxidants that can help prevent heart disease and cancer, bolster the immune system, and even slow aging by promoting good vision and healthy skin.  They have been recently reclassified as an "antidiabetic" food and they are anti-inflammatory.

African Sweet Potato Stew:
Serves 3-4

4-5 medium sized sweet potatoes
2 carrots diced
1½  cups brown rice
1½  cups of corn
1 red onion-chopped
1 can garbanzo beans
1 can pinto beans
1 large can chopped tomatoes
½ cup almond, peanut, or sunflower butter (I used almond)
¾ bunch of collard greens, de-stemmed and chopped
4 cups veggie broth
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander

In a large pot, sauté the chopped red onion in 2 tablespoons of water until the onions are translucent.

Add the sweet potatoes, veggie broth and spices and cover for 10 minutes to get the veggie broth hot. As the broth begins to boil, add the remaining ingredients with the exception of the almond/peanut/sunflower butter, the corn, and the collard greens.

Cook for 15 minutes at a simmer. As the sweet potatoes start to soften, add the remaining ingredients and cook for an additional 10 minutes until the greens are soft.

Further reading:
McDevitt, R.M. et all., “De novo lipogenesis during controlled over-feeding with sucrose or glucose in lean and obese women.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001.

McDougall, John A. and Mary McDougall, The Starch Solution: Eat the Foods You Loce, Regain Your Health, and Lose the Weight for Good. New York: Rodal, 2012.

As always the information presented in this blog is for educational purposes only. It should not be considered as specific medical, nutritional, lifestyle, or other health-related advice.