Archive for the ‘Healthy eating’ Category

Eating and drinking European style

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Living and eating at a vineyard

We're just back from 3+ weeks in Europe, almost all of that in Portugal. We had keys to an apartment situated in a village west of Lisbon and owned by old friends. Downstairs was a superb Brazilian restaurant and 100 feet from our buildings door was another, more casual eatery in a glass-sided tent-like structure. We dined at those two places a lot, but also rented a car, drove north, and stayed in walled cities, a university town and a farm in the Douro Valley raising grapes for Port wine, olives and some fruit.

We discovered a new style of eating and drinking, far different from American fast food restaurants or home meals eaten on a couch in front of a television set or hurriedly at a table. Many of our dinners lasted well over two hours and almost all were accompanied by red wine.

We had already, over the past few years, changed our style of eating, at least for our evening meal. We move from the kitchen area to the dining room, serve one course at a time, portion out our meat, salad, and vegetables in the kitchen so we don't have platters of food before us as a temptation to refill our plates. We slow down, talk and reflect on our day or on issues of substance. Perhaps three times a week we have a glass of wine, almost always a sweet white varietal. Our dinners often stretch out to an hour in length, sometimes longer.

I've read about the supposed health benefits of red wine (the Mayo Clinic website has an excellent short review on the subject) and, in recent years, realized there are some reds I can drink without having the kind of reaction (mostly nasal stuffiness) I got from Cabernet sauvignon in the early 1970s. I went back to a March 2011 update from Mayo's which, with appropriate cautions, discusses an antioxidant named resveratrol, which comes from grape skins. Because red wine is fermented with grape skins longer than is red wine, it contains more of this polyphenol chemical.

I knew I wanted to try and likely buy some Port. That was easily done during our four-day farm-stay. But elsewhere in Portugal there were various other local red wines. So we walked from our hotel to a restaurant (I don't drink and drive), ordered some red wine and markedly changed our eating style.

Take a bite, put down the utensil, savor, swallow and then talk for a while. Our meals stretched out to two hours and often beyond. In one restaurant we were next to a French couple and beyond them was a Canadian couple. We entered the place before either and left last.

We usually ate bread (freshly made) and ate desserts. I knew I would gain a few pounds, but I also knew I could lose it quickly when we returned home. The food, on average, was wonderful. We ate lots of fresh fish, lots of vegetables and the occasional mousse de chocolata. We hope to carry over some of those habits now that we're home.



Beating the heat by using the new data:

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Ready, set, eat well

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described how the Houston Texans professional football team is using data I read in the Archieves of Internal Medicine online to improve player safety. The Texans are facing some of our worst summer heat and are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent heat-related injury.

I'm not at all sure I agree with their stategem, practicing in triple-digit weather outdoors in the full sun. Their theory is that doing so helps their players remain fresh in the heat of early-season games. Other teams have opted for temperature-controlled practice arenas or night-time workouts or cooler climes.

We'll wait and see the results, but at least they're using the latest medical research and some practical concepts.

Players are weighed pre-practice and afterwards (the team, collectively, lost an incredible average of 450 pounds per two-hour session one week). That's in spite of replacement fluids and ice to the tune of 100 gallons of water, 50 cases of Gatorade and three quarters of a ton of ice for ninety men. One three-hundred-plus tackle lost seven pounds and had to receive IV fluids.

The Archives  article and a subsequent Harvard Heart Letter detailed research and historical perspective. Our intake of sodium, in table salt and foods, is important, but the ratio of how much sodium to potassium in our diets may be even more crucial.

An older edition of the Harvard Heart Letter compared our modern diet to that of our primitive ancestors. Paleolithic man consumed sixteen times as much potassium (in milligrams) as sodium; today our typical diet has nearly five times as much sodium and less than a quarter of the potassium as the hunter-gatherers ate, so the ratio has marked changed.

lots of potassium in this bunch

So how do you return to a healthier diet, in those terms. Well, a banana, for instance has over 400 milligrams of potassium and almost no sodium (1 milligram). An orange has over 230 times as much potassium as sodium, steamed Brussels sprouts 35 times as much (I mean in milligrams in all cases, so scientifically my comparisons are ratios).

The Texan's head dietician and senior trainer are altering the team's diet, using lots (and I mean lots) of electrolyte-containing vegetables and fluids. They even formed a players' food committee to make sure the team members would have choices that they would like. Southerners want okra and potatoes, so that's what they get. The team members were concerned about blood pressure effects from all the salt they're getting; then they heard how the new research showed foods high in potassium and other electrolytes can balance out the effects of sodium.

The proof is in the pudding is the old saying; we'll see how the Houston team does when the season starts.

But I can certainly see the sense behind their approach.


A better school lunch: Greeley in the New York Times Breaking News

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

It's time for a better school lunch

I was reading the NYT breaking news on my Kindle this morning, when to my surprise I saw an article, "Schools Restore Fresh Cooking to the Cafeteria," on school lunches in Greeley, Colorado. We live 20-25 miles northwest of Greeley and I'd never thought of the city as being a hotbed of innovation.

At a tad under 93,000 inhabitants, Greeley is mid-sized at best, but 60% of its 19,500 students qualify for lower-priced or free meals, so they have decided those meals will be healthy ones.They're not alone in this endeavor. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a campaign whose motto is,"Foods served in schools should promote the health of all children." Their 2008 school lunch report card ranked twenty school districts across the nation with letter grades from A to F.

Here's that URL:

At the top with A's were schools in Montogomery County, MD, Omaha, NE, and Pinellas County, FL, I was pleased that my grandson Jordi's schools in Fairfax County, VA got an A-.  At the bottom were schools in two areas of Louisiana. I bet Greeley will climb up the list in the next few years.

So what's their plan? Like many Colorado schools, they've participated in Cooks for America, a group that runs a chef's boot camp for school cooks  Here's what that organization's website says: "Distinguishing the Cook for America® approach from that of countless other school food reform projects is its emphasis on holistic, systemic change through the creation of a school foodservice work force that is both capable of preparing healthy scratch-cooked meals from whole, fresh foods, and empowered and motivated to do so."

Greeley schools will be cooking from scratch, roughly three-fourths of the time at the start of this school year according to the NYT article, and aim to reach 100% in the 2012-2013 time frame. They'll be using fresh ingredients, avoiding chemicals (e.g., their bean burritos will have 12 ingredients this year versus 35 last year).

Although Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the nation, Weld County, where Greeley is located, had rates growing faster than much of the state. So the numbers were crunched with amazing results: cooking from scratch will actually save money. A large foundation grant helped with construction and new equipment and the old central kitchen was renovated, so the budget for staff was actually reduced.

Chenically-colored macaroni and cheese

The district hired an experienced executive chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) and worked in high-end restaurants. He hopes his concepts for healthy cooking will wend their way back to the districts homes. One of his innovative ideas is to replace the chemically-colored commercial macaroni and cheese with a version whose familiar yellow will come from the Indian spice turmeric. His salad dressing will have no sugar and only a quarter of the sodium that's been present in the factory-made variety.

My hat's off to Greeley.


Let us eat lettuce...and more

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

I want more to a salad than just iceberg lettuce

Some years back I told my wife, "I'm tired of the same old salad; could you make a different one?"

We both cook, though she does more of of daily cooking than I do, but salad making is my least favorite part of cooking.

Over the next six weeks she never made a salad I had tasted before; her mix and match approach led to some surprises, but I'm always happy to try new dishes and almost all of them were successes. She added edamame, sunflower seeds, unusual greens; I ate them all. I finally told her, "I didn't mean an entirely new salad every time, just less of the iceberg lettuce, store-bought tomatoes and cucumber with familiar dressing.

We still eat salads at least once a day, sometimes as our main dish with chicken or fish added for protein. Sometimes we'll have a brand new mixture; sometimes I can recognize we've had this blend before and put it on the "keeper list."

Today I read about food companies attempts to get more Americans on the same dietary pathway. The Wall Street Journal had an article titled "The Salad Is in the Bag." I was amazed to read that the typical US adult eats salad with a meal only 36 times a years, roughly once every ten days. Less than half of Americans eat even one "leaf salad" in meals they serve at home in a two-week period.

The two of us are clearly on the far end of that scale when it comes to salad making. Our share of this weeks' vegetables from Grant Family Farms, our CSA, included summer squash, English peas, cabbage, carrots, kohlrabi, cilantro, parsley, green onions, a little broccoli, cylindra beets (new to us) and romaine lettuce. All of those veggies will find their way into salad

I've even gotten more enthusiastic about preparing some of the new salad combinations myself.

So what's going on with the "store-bought" salad concept?

A market research group reported the biggest issue is making salads. Apparently people don't want to take the time to wash produce, inspect it, cut it and come up with mixtures the family will eat (we won't even get into those who abhor greenery).

So some of the major food companies are responding by making salad preparation easier. One concept being explored is adding more kinds of vegetables to bagged lettuce or spinach. That way all you have to do is buy a bag, bring it home, open it before a meal and pour the contents into a salad bowl.

Well that sounds easy, but it turns out to be a bit more complicated than the simple version. One company found wheatberries absorbed moisture; their research director spent six months resolving that issue. Then there's the price issue; bagged salads cost more. Past history and the view of CPSI says there's more risk of pathogen growth and therefore of food-bourne illness.

But pre-washing with newer chemical mixtures, eliminating the need for a second wash at home, may help.

A new and improved version

Salad, anyone?


Reading Taubes: part one

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

Avoid white bread

A while back one of my blog readers asked if I had ever read Taubes. I wasn't sure if that was a book title, a diet plan or an author, so I Googled the word and eventually purchased two books written by a veteran science writer, Gary Taubes.

Taubes studied applied physics at Harvard and areospace engineering at Stanford, then wrote articles for Discover and Science plus four books. He looks for scientific controversises and wades into them. In July 2002 he published an article in the New York Times Magazine titled "What if it's All Been a Big Fat Lie,"

The article takes us back to the Adkins diet craze. Dr. Atkins, trained in cardiology, was significantly overweight and used a JAMA study as a basis for his own personal diet plan. He then published two books urging dieters to severely limit carbohydrate consumption. At one point it was estimated that one out of eleven North American adults were on his diet. His company made over $100 million, but filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2005, two years after he died.

Taubes explores some of the same turf, saying it's refined carbohydrates that make us fat. His initial plunge into the field was the NYT piece, followed by a 2007 book, Good Calories, Bad Calories and now a 2011 book, Why We get Fat: and What to do About It.

Taubes has hefty credentials as a science writer; he is the only print journalist to have received the Science in Society Journalism Award three times. Currently he's a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation investigator in Health Policy Research at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health. But his initial article ignited a firestorm. In the piece Taubes mentions that the common veiwpoint links the kickoff of the obesity epidemic  (in the early 1980s), to cheap fatty foods, large portion servings (at commercial establishments presumably), an increase in food advertisements and a sedentary lifestyle.

He would beg to differ, invoking what he terms "Endocrinology 101," an explanation that says human evolution was not designed for a high-sugar, high-starch diet. Until a comparatively recent era (roughly 10,000 years ago) we were not agriculturists, but hunter-gatherers. So Taubes thinks the problem is our increased consumption of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white bread, pasta &  white rice.

Others think he picks and chooses his facts. I don't think he's wrong in his basic premise, but he also disagrees with the ideas of "calories in; calories out," avoiding saturated fats and exercising being important in weight control (He seems to think people who exercise then hurry off to eat more).

more than one way to "thin a cat"

I'm down thirty pounds since early in 2009, have easily kept the weight off by exercising six days a week, avoiding sugar & HFCS foods and eating lots  more veggies and fruits while cutting back on portion size of meat dishes.

I'll read more on Taubes and his detractors and let you know what I agree with and what I don't.

So what should I eat?

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Medical research comes through for us

I was reading my morning papers yesterday, The Wall Street Journal (hard-copy edition) and the New York Times breaking news (on my Kindle). I came across a June 23, 2011, WSJ article titled "You Say Potato, Scale Says Uh-Oh." It detailed a recent research study online in a prominent medical journal. The premise was what you choose to eat will determine what happens to your weight over a four-year period.

The overall conclusion, once again, is picking healthier items for your diet leads to less weight gain. Most American adults gain a pound a year, but if they add a serving of French Fries on a daily basis, they'll gain more (3.35 pounds). The NEJM said the participants in three huge studies (a total of 120,877 U.S. men and women who were free of chronic diseases and non-obese at the start of the studies), gained most if the extra item was potato chips, and lost weight if it was yogurt. The list, after chips, in deceasing correlation to weight gain included potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages and unprocessed red meat or processed meat.

Negative numbers were noted for the addition of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and then yogurt. Other lifestyle influences were examined. If one of the subjects exercised regularly, they lost weight; if they watched much TV, they gained pounds.

So what's new here? Huge studies over lengthy time periods + a few different conclusions.

The study's co-author, Dr. Walter Willet, the chairman of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard's School of Public Health was interviewed on NPR New's program "All Things Considered." He commented that highly refined foods-sugar-added beverages and potatoes, white rice and white bread-were related to greater weight gain. The presumption is these foods are rapidly broken down into sugar, absorbed and then quickly removed by the action of insulin. So if you eat these things, in a short while you're hungry again.

high-protein Greek-style yogurt

Nuts have fat, but keep us satiated for a prolonged time. Yogurt was a surprise to the research group (we're talking about natural yogurt without added sugar) and the mechanism for its influence on weight is unclear, but may relate to the healthy bacteria included.

The bottom line may be just because some foods contain fat, doesn't necessarily mean they'll be fattening. On the other hand, foods that keep us satisfied for a longer time may help us control our overall calorie intake over the long haul.




Sodium and Iodine intake

Friday, May 27th, 2011

You can get iodine from salt and from food

My wife subscribes to a healthy cooking magazine and I sometimes read parts. Last week I was puzzled by their piece regarding appropriate dietary sodium intake. There were three column, one for younger adult women, one for "older" women (starting at 51) and one for all adult men.

The levels were 2,300 mg per day for young women and all men and 1,500 mg a day for men. Yet sodium recommendations (in various publications) for older adults of both genders as well as African Americans of any adult age, and those of us with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease (a total of perhaps 70% of our total population) range from 1,300 to 1,500 mg per day . The American Heart Association now recommends all of us limit our sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day.

I decided to write an email to the magazine and mentioned that they were behind the power curve. I got a prompt answer from their senior dietitian; in their June edition they'll be listing a lower figure for older men. I thought. 'It's a start, at least."

Then I received the June 2011 edition of the Harvard Heart Letter. One question that arises when we're told to cut back on salt, is will we stinting on iodine? The title of the lead article gave a direct answer: "Cut salt--it won't affect your iodine intake." The subtitle continued in the same theme: "Iodized salt provides only a small fraction of daily iodine intake."

Those of us over the age of 19 should get 150 micrograms of iodine per day (The senior vitamin/mineral supplement we take contains 150 micrograms/tablet). The recommendations are higher for women who are pregnant or breast-feeding (220 and 290 micrograms respectively).

We also get iodine from dairy products including cheese and yogurt, eggs, marine fish and vegetables that come from regions where the soil contains lots of iodine. Essentially all iodine ingested in food and liquids is absorbed and bio-available (This is not true for iodine in thyroid hormones taken for therapeutic purposes). So I searched to see if we might be getting too much iodine. The data is vague, but an old World Health Organization recommendation I found stated that 1,000 micrograms/day was felt to be safe.

Thyroid check in pregnant woman

We need iodine to enable our thyroid glands to synthesize thyroid hormone. Too little iodine intake leads to hypothyroidism and enlargement of the thyroid gland (goiter). That's bad enough for adults, but worse for fetuses, infants and children where too little iodine can seriously affect brain development.

Most Americans, especially those who eat lots of processed food, take in excess sodium. But the majority of the food-producing companies in adding salt to their products, don't use iodized salt.

You can get all your needed iodine from the AHA-recommended sodium intake (NB. not all salt is iodized) and from "natural" foods Processed foods just add sodium you don't need.

But if you're pregnant (or might be), ask your own doctor.



The great potato war

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Time for a switch?

I was reading The Wall Street Journal this morning, starting as usual with the "Personal Journal section which headlined the story of a successful prolonged cardiac resuscitation: "96 minutes without a heartbeat."But then the front page caught my eye with an article titled "Spuds, on the Verge of Being Expelled, Start a Food Fight in the Cafeteria."

Searching back-files, I found recent discussions at the US Senate Agriculture's Appropriations Subcommittee hearings. The Department of Agriculture plans to not allow money in the WIC program budget to be spent on white potatoes and not surprisingly senators from Maine and Idaho protested.

Medical articles I found stated that potatoes dominate our vegetable consumption, especially among adolescents who favor them fried. Another study, this one among young preschoolers, showed 70% of 2 to 3 year old kids eating some form of vegetables daily, with french fries and other fried potatoes being the most commonly consumed vegetables. An article in Nutrition Research from April 2011 stated that white potatoes, including French fries, did contribute "shortfall nutrients' and, when consumed in moderate amounts, could form part of a healthful diet.

So what's the rub? Well to begin with if you're only eating French fries, or worse still baked potatoes with lots of cheese, butter and other toppings, you may not be eating any other vegetables and you're getting a lot of "unhealthy diet" items.

Then there's the question of which potato is better. The "Tufts University Health&Nutrition Letter" recommends trying sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, saying they have huge amounts of beta-carotene  (if you eat them, as I do, with the skin) and larger quantities of vitamin C, folate, calcium and manganese than their pale cousins.

The article in the WSJ that I started with mentions "Maine Potato Candy," mashed white potatoes rolled in coconut and dipped in chocolate and even potato doughnuts, One school food-service director is quoted as regularly serving hash browns , mashed potatoes, "Maine fries," a baked potato bar and even potato puffs for various school meals.

The proposed USDA guidelines, on the other hand, would limit starchy vegetables (not just white potatoes, but also corn, peas and lima beans) to no more than one cup per week. As expected the potato industry and their elected representatives launched a campaign to defend their product, even calling the white potato a "gateway vegetable" that can introduce kids to other vegetables.

The fracas apparently started when the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Science, recommended that WIC money shouldn't be used to buy white potatoes. One food-service director, up in Caribou, Maine, said she tried serving sweet-potato fries, but her students "just don't like them." She'said to have noted they cost more and most of it goes in the trash.

I love sweet potatoes, but I started eating them early in life and I think that's the key. If those two and three year-old kids get introduced to sweet potatoes, in whatever form, and then after a few years get baked sweet potatoes (without all the toppings...we use salsa), by the time they are teenagers they'll eat them without any qualms.

Or so I think.

Katz Redux

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

I went back to Dr. David Katz's classic article published in the Harvard  Health Policy Review in 2006. His example of the Pima Indian tribe had caught my eye the first time through the piece and serves as a cautionary note for the rest of us. I decided to explore the subject further.

mesquite tree

The Pimas, who live not far from us, in the four corners region where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet, used to be outdoors men and women, taking long-distance walks on a regular basis and eating a diet that fits all the modern parameters for healthy eating. it included two unusual items one of which was mesquite,  which I think of as a tree. I've now found that mesquite has bean pods that can be dried and ground into a sweet,nutty flour high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, and rich in the amino acid lysine.

The other native foodstuff was a drought-resistant bean, tepary, which has recently been introduced into African agriculture . All in all they exercised much more than many of us and ate a high-fiber, low-fat low-sugar diet without an abundance of calories.

Then civilization happened to the Pimas. Now they own casinos and don't walk anywhere as far as their forebears (their per capita income is still on the low side). They also eat a less healthy "American diet" similar to the rest of us.

The consequences were those you'd expect. obesity and diabetes. Fifty percent of the adult Pimas are obese and of those 95% have diabetes. The tribe is now part of a major NIH research project (the website is at and then add /pathfind/pthfind.htm or /obesity/obesity.htm), which over the past 30 years has shown that before gaining weight, overweight people have a slower metabolic rate.

This so-called "thrifty gene" theory originally suggested in 1962, looked at populations, like the Pimas, who over thousands of years would have alternating period of famine and feast. When there was little to eat, they stored fat. Now that they don't need to do this in the same fashion, the gene has led them toward the diseases associated with obesity, especially diabetes.

less healthy than mesquite flour

An update from the Harvard School of Public Health mentioned the mayor of Boston having banned sale and advertising of "sugar-loaded drinks" from city-owned buildings and city-sponsored events. The chair of HSPH's Department of Nutrition was quoted as saying, "There is abundant evidence that the huge increase in soda consumption in the past 40 years is the most important single factor behind America's obesity epidemic."

So not all of us have thrifty genes to blame for weight gain. But we can start by abandoning those sodas and other sugar-laden drinks.  And perhaps, to whatever extent we can, returning to a diet similar to our own ancestors, with more locally grown fruits and veggies leading the way to better health.



New proposed food advertisement rules with hedging language

Friday, April 29th, 2011

And here we go again

In response to the hue and cry about childhood obesity, an Interagency Working Group was set up, under the direction of our Congress, between the FTC, the FDA, the CDC and the Department of Agriculture . Their tasking was to "develop a set of principles to guide (note that word) industry efforts to improve the nutritional profile of foods marketed directly to children ages 2-17" and also to support healthful food choices.

After I read a short Wall Street Journal article on this proposal this morning, I found the original government release from yesterday online and a commentary in The Atlantic online written today by Dr. Marion Nestle, a named chair professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU and a visiting professor at Cornell. I have her 2006 book, What To Eat and consider her a trusted and knowledgeable figure in the field.

Let's start with the Interagency proposal, titled "Food for Thought." It mentions the major sources of calories for youngsters are cookies and cakes, pizza and various sugary drinks. When and if they eat veggies, half of those are chips and fries. Their parents are becoming concerned about childhood obesity as well they should be; one in three kids is overweight and headed toward an increased risk of all the diseases associated with obesity, hypertension, asthma and diabetes among them. They won't, on average, live as long as their folks do.

So, given that issue and the fact that the food industry spends huge amounts to markets these unhealthy food choices to kids, what does this august group come up with?

A voluntary program that should (note the word choice) be followed by the year 2016. Strange I think that's five years from now.

The recommendations, now subject to public comment (read that as efforts to soften them by the food industry) appear reasonable on first glance. They include foods that "provide a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet" and note those food components that should (same word again) be limited (added sugars, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats).

Marion Nestle's comment notes a prior attempt that never saw the final "rules" being implemented, and voices concern that the principles are still voluntary with no agency set up to track compliance and that five years seems far too long to institute these kind of changes. She thought the 2010 proposals weren't strict enough and noted the sodium level mentioned in the 2011 version was actually slightly increased, presumably to allow inclusion of more junk foods. She does congratulate the FTC for its courage.

Well I'll be a little blunter. I'm not holding my breath that these changes will happen short of massive public protest.

Even though 17 major companies are making some changes by reformulating foods and decreasing their markets efforts to kids, I think those will be glacially slower than they should be if we're going to help and even save the upcoming generations.

So it's time for all of us to weigh in on this issue. Start a campaign, talk to friends, write a something.