Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Secret to Eating Healthier for Life

...Now that I have your attention...I am feeling inspired to share the one habit I feel everyone must acquire in order to be truly healthy: cooking at home.

Before you dismiss this statement in a flurry of memories of triple fudge cheesecakes and double cheese lasagnas of meals past, let me explain. At home, you have the ultimate control over what you eat. You choose exactly how much oil or butter or salt or sugar to add (or to leave out). You can pile your plate high with broccoli and tofu or raspberries and Greek yogurt. When you dine or grab take out, you have no idea how much oil or salt or MSG got loaded into the dish you are about to consume. Typically, the calorie counts will be two to three times what you expect. It often doesn't actually taste that good - that "delicious" sensation you are experiencing is solely a reaction to all the fat, sugar and salt you are eating. You also don't appreciate a meal as much.

I feel like so many of our maladies nowadays are caused by disconnection. Disconnection from loved ones, our physical bodies and especially food. When food is simply something to be ordered and consumed, we forget how nourishing it can truly be. We want food cheaper, faster and richer. Our waistlines are bulging, our energy is lagging and we feel miserable when we should be feeling amazing.

To cook at home, you don't have to be a fancy cook...or even to love cooking. If you can boil water, you can make a simple pasta with some olive oil, garlic and baby spinach. This might not taste like much...but give your taste buds time. Add a little crunchy sea salt to enliven the dish. The more you eat simple foods at home, the more the flavour of real, natural foods will come alive. Consider this an investment in yourself and your family's health. 

I thought I would share some of my favourite things to help inspire you to get connected with your food and get in the kitchen. Remember, it doesn't have to be fancy. Often, it is better if it isn't. Make a ritual of preparing good quality food simply and enjoying your nourishment. 

If you haven't discovered my recipe blog that I write with my friend Heather, check out one of our favourite snacks here. To make the idea of cooking a pastime and not a chore, it doesn't hurt to treat yourself to a few pretty (or functional) gadgets. And if you can read, you can cook...but this cookbook is especially helpful for those new to the kitchen. This cookbook is a great one to introduce you to beans...one of my favourite foods. And if you really want to make cooking an event, sign up with your spouse, roommates or girlfriends for a cooking class or if you want to get fancy, a lesson in patissierie francais. And of course, you can't talk about a cook at home revolution without talking about one of my food heroes.

Stroll out to a farmer's market this weekend, pop open a bottle of wine and have a leisurely afternoon with friends in the kitchen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Plant Power...5 easy steps for moving towards a plant-based diet.

Earthly Delights...

Full disclosure...if you don't read a lot of my blog, you might not know that I am a vegetarian. Not a vegan - a vegetarian. This means that I don't eat meat of any kind, including fish and seafood. I do eat dairy and eggs although I try to minimize them in my diet. So right off the bat, I have a bit of a bias. 

Even if you have no desire towards a vegetarian diet, heck - even if you live for steak - I want to encourage you towards a more plant-based diet. Sound like an oxymoron? It isn't...here's why:

A plant-based diet means that most of your foods come from unprocessed plants. Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains...these are the foods that will protect you from chronic disease with all that fibre and those vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. It will help keep your weight down over the years too. Most of your food should come from these plants. Then, if you wish, you can add a bit of cake, dairy, taco chips, eggs, seafood or meat. Your body will be so nourished it won't matter too much. 

A plant-based diet will also help lower your impact on the planet. Check out this carbon footprint chart from the Environmental Working Group (you'll have to scroll down a bit)...you won't look at a cow the same way again.

If you have been trying to shift your diet towards one that is more plant-based, it can seem overwhelming. Don't worry about transforming overnight; instead go slowly and build in habits that will become an effortless part of how you live. Here are 5 easy ways you can build up the plant power on your plate!

1. Celebrate Meatless Monday. Every Monday, join the millions worldwide who go without meat just one day a week to help lighten their environmental impact. 

2. Switch to a veggie milk. While other options might not be as effortless (or tasty), there are infinite varieties of vegetarian milks and surely one will tickle your fancy. Try almond, rice, coconut, soy, quinoa or even hemp "milks". Almost all of them are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to keep your bones strong and B12 - a vitamin unique to the animal world. 

3. Make half your plate produce. No matter what the meal, shift the balance of fruits and veggies so that they make up 50% of your plate. You will boost nutrition and save calories. We all need that.

4. Snack on fruits and veggies. For some reason, we only think "snack foods" - the granola bars, cookies and chips of the world - when it comes to snack time. Instead, nosh on chopped veggies and dip; pack uber-portable fruits like apples and pears so that you always have something healthy to nibble. 

5. Go retro and "extend" your meat. That old cost-saving method of making meatloaf with veggies and breadcrumbs? Give it a modern spin. Canned lentils have the perfect taste and texture to substitute for 50% of your ground beef in a dish. Instead of serving big chicken breasts, stir-fry over lush beds of freshly "wok"ed veggies or sauté with veggies for a pasta primavera. Serve fish tacos, nestled into tortillas with a colourful coleslaw, instead of serving up big slabs of pricey salmon. Use all that money you save to splurge on some good fair trade chocolate.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nutrition ABCs...F is for Fat (Part Two)

My first post on fat described what fat actually is and why we need it. Today, let's talk practicalities - which fats you want more of and what food choices you can make to get you there. As promised, here are the good, the bad and the ugly - where fats are concerned.

Good Fats

Mono-unsaturated fats

Mono-unsaturated fats are found in most plant-based oils such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados. They do not increase your risk of disease although eating too much of them, like any fat, might add a little padding to your bottom line. Replacing saturated fats or processed carbohydrates with mono-unsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol and risk of heart disease. This type of fat is the mainstay of your healthy fat menu.

What does this mean for you? Use extra-virgin olive oil as your main culinary fat. Don't pour with abandon - you really only need about 1/2 - 1 tsp of oil per person when you cook. Enjoy avocado, raw nuts, seeds and nut butters more often as these whole food sources of fat come complexed with many other nutrients like fibre.

Poly-unsaturated fats

Poly-unsaturated fats are also found in plant-based oils, usually the nuts and seeds. Soy beans, dark green leafy veggies, algae and cold water, oily fish are also rich in poly-unsaturated fats. There are many different poly-unsaturated fatty acids but the ones with all the hoopla are the omega 3s and omega 6s. Essentially, they are twins - one is kind of evil, one is nicer. Both are necessary to your health. It is when these two are out of balance that our health suffers. Here's why:

Omega 3 fatty acids are precursors for molecules that are generally anti-inflammatory. Omega 6 fatty acids, with few exceptions, are precursors for molecules that are pro-inflammatory. The jury is still out on the "perfect" ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s. However, it should look a lot closer to 1:2 or 1:4 rather than the 1:10+ typically seen in the standard American diet. How did this come to be? Well, you see the list above of omega 3 food sources? Not exactly on the menu at Taco Bell. These are very healthy foods that just aren't that common for many people. What is common is fast food, "convenience" foods and tons of processed flour and sugar-rich baked goods that also feature tons of cheap, omega 6-laden fat like soy and corn oil.

What does this mean for you? Eat fewer processed and fast foods; rid your cabinet of margarine and cooking oils (except olive oil) to reduce your intake of omega 6s. If you are allergic to dairy or vegan, consider using an organic coconut oil-based spread but use it sparingly. Increase your intake of oily fish (if you eat fish) like herring, sablefish and salmon; eat more flax, hemp, pumpkin and chia seeds and dark green leafy veg to increase your omega 3 intake. 

If you choose to supplement, don't pay for a 3-6-9 supplement; you get plenty of 6 (most foods) and 9 (olive oil!) already. Don't buy into the marketing. Look for EPA and DHA in your supplement, as these are the omega 3 forms that are most rigorously tested in a clinical setting. I like the new algae-based supplements from a sustainability standpoint. They don't contain EPA but the body can inter-convert DHA to EPA and they usually contain oils that can theoretically increase EPA in the body.

Less Good...and sometimes bad

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats come mostly from meat and dairy and can also be found in tropical oils - such as palm and coconut. We used to think that saturated fat was terrible for you and then the team at Harvard School of Public Health published a review article that challenged this thinking. We come back to these kinds of contradictions time and time again in nutrition science. Why? In my opinion, it is because we don't eat tubs of saturated fat. We eat food. And each food is a complex substance filled with different nutrients and co-factors that we still don't fully understand. And we eat these foods in the context of diets and lifestyles that change their impact. 

So what is the current thinking on saturated fat? Generally speaking, it falls into the "a little is fine, too much is bad" category. We need some saturated fat in our diets. However, the foods and eating patterns associated with a higher intake of saturated fat (meat, dairy, fast food...) are the same ones that will point us in the direction of less healthy choices and risk for obesity and chronic disease. So look to minimize your intake of saturated fats. And what about coconut oil? Don't believe the hype - it will not cure your cancer or help you to lose 10 lbs without dieting. However, the "new" coconut oil is far less processed than the stuff that used to fill processed food in the eighties. It appears that plant-based saturated fats won't raise blood cholesterol as much as animal-based ones. But they still can't touch the health benefits of mono-unsaturated or omega 3 fats. 

What does this mean for you? Eat a modest amount of lean meats such as poultry and seafood and just a bit of red meat (if you eat meat!). Remember that meat servings don't need to be bigger than a deck of cards. Skim the fat from milk and yogurt; eat smaller portions of cheese - don't just slather everything with it. Save good quality (preferably organic) butter for occasional baking. Enjoy good quality coconut oil in recipes if you like but don't start eating it with abandon. Saturated fats are not something you need to actively seek out...there is a small amount of saturated fat in almost every other fat source we consume.

Down-Right Ugly

Industrial trans fats

A trans fat is made in two ways: the first, due to the miracle of a cow's many stomachs; the second, as a marvel of modern science. The first way does not appear to cause any harm and may even have some benefit. The second needs to be eradicated from our food supply. It is highly inflammatory; it raises our bad cholesterol and even worse...lowers our good cholesterol. It exists for the sole purpose of extending the shelf life (and profit margins) of foods we shouldn't be eating in the first place. I won't bother with much of a debate. These things are terrible.

What does this mean for you? Beware the "trans fat free" food. If a food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, it can be labelled trans fat free. However, if you eat 6 cookies with 0.3 grams of trans fats each, you have just consumed 1.8 grams. Doesn't sound like much, but it is essentially your "safe" daily limit for trans fats. Instead, avoid fried foods in restaurants and fast food outlets as these are most at risk for being filled with trans fats. Ditto for cheap baked goods like cookies, muffins and pastries. Read ingredients lists: if you see the words shortening, margarine or hydrogenated fat - take a pass. 

Have a question about fats? Let me know!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nutrition ABCs...F is for Fat (Part One)

Fat. We love to eat it. We hate it on our backsides. We have tried low fat...and gotten even fatter. We demonized saturated fat and then questioned whether it is really all that bad for us. We have gone gaga for omega 3s but only if they are in the "right" ratio to omega 6s - what is the right ratio, anyway? 

Need the low down on this much-discussed macronutrient? Read on, my friends...read on.

Let's start with the basics. What is fat? 

A dietary fat is composed of a glycerol backbone and 3 fatty acid tails. The type of tails determines the structure and function of the fat. If the fatty acids are saturated, they line up nice and snug and are solid at room temperature, like butter and coconut oil. If the fatty acids are missing one little hydrogen molecule, it is called a mono-unsaturated fat. At room temperature, these are liquid fatty acids such as oleic acid, the primary component of olive oil. If there is more than one hydrogen molecule missing, the liquid fat is called poly-unsaturated. These are your omegas. These fats are so "fluid" and flexible that they stay liquid even when cold. Think of flax oil - it doesn't turn solid in the fridge like olive oil does.

What does fat do in our bodies? 

A dietary fat has 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories per gram for protein or carbohydrate. It is a concentrated source of energy. When we eat fats, they are digested into fatty acid components so they can be absorbed into the body. Once across the gut, they get repackaged into a molecule called a chylomicron that is transported to the bloodstream so the fatty acids can be carried to cells that need them for energy. And if the cells don't need that energy...the fatty acids travel to fat cells for storage.

We need some fat to help us absorb the fat soluble vitamins A,D,E + K and some of the fat-soluble phytochemicals, such as lycopene in tomatoes. Fatty acids also carry flavour so that we enjoy food more. Fatty acids become incorporated into our cell membranes, which is essentially the bag that holds the cell contents. Eat more saturated fats and your cell membranes will be more saturated. Eat more omega 3 fats and your cells will contain more omega 3s. Fatty acids are also the starting material for cell signalling molecules that can cause muscle contractions or even influence the immune system. 

While fat can contribute to weight gain when consumed in excess, it is really the quality of fats that matter most - not the quantity - when we are talking about good health.

So in my next post, we'll break it down and talk the good, the bad and the ugly.