Archive for Nutrition

Commonsense eating: grains of energy.

loaf.JPGThere’s nothing so controversial these days as a loaf of bread.

Is it the staff of life?

The harbinger of fat?

A miracle of fermentation?

A veritable gluten-laced poison?

Are grains even fit for human consumption? How can we untangle this mess?

Humans are omnivores. We eat all kinds of food. We eat animals, we eat plants. And we eat the seeds of plants.

Something like 10,000 years ago, humans in various parts of the world developed an intimate relationship with grass plants. We began to cultivate them (or they began to cultivate us) for the sake of their energy-rich seeds.* In Mexico, the grass was corn (maize). In Turkey, wheat and barley. In China and India, rice.

Elaborate food cultures grew up around these grass seeds. In South India, rice is ground and fermented to make dosas and idlis. In Mexico, corn is soaked and simmered with lime or wood ash to make nixtamal for tortillas. Traditional Turkish flatbread is made with a long-fermented sourdough. Each culture revered its central grain, often as a goddess. Think of Ceres/Demeter in the Mediterranean, the Aztec Chicomecoatl. In South India, Lakshmi is associated with rice.

Sounds perfectly lovely, doesn’t it? So why are people worried about grains?

Well, first of all, we don’t seem to revere grains much these days. We used to grind them between two stones; now it’s high temperature, high speed steel roller mills (goodbye enzymes and vitamins). We used to eat whole or roughly polished grains; now our industrial machinery can remove every “extraneous” bit of fiber and color. We used to soak and ferment our grains; now we don’t have time for that sort of thing.

Complex traditional recipes have been supplanted by industrial processes. There’s a serious difference between packaged “sourdough” bread (whipped up in a matter of minutes with rapid rise yeast and a dash of vinegar) and the real thing, which needs a full day or two of fermentation before baking. There’s a serious difference between a bag of “tortilla” chips (ground up corn fried in vegetable oil) and tortillas made from real nixtamal, fried in natural lard.

Those old slow recipes weren’t backwards technology. The old processes make the food more digestible, the nutrients more accessible. (Oh, and they make the food taste better too.)

So, we eat all our grains the old-fashioned way and we’ll be fine, right?

Not quite so fast.

Grains are a high-energy (carbohydrate) food, but they don’t give us too much in the way of protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Most of us use a lot less energy than our ancestors did. (How many of your ancestors sat around staring at an inanimate object all day?)

A diet too heavy on grains can leave us swimming in energy, but still hungry for the nutrients we’re missing. That doesn’t work out so well. Eat a high-energy, low-nutrient diet for long enough, and you’ll end up depleted and insulin-resistant. Trust me, you don’t want that.

So what’s to be done?

First, remember what I said before: The food that’s good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another person. Any “advice” I give is to be taken with your own personal salt shaker.**

That said, here’s my take on the grain situation:

1. Always eat grains with more nutrient-dense foods. (Butter your bread!)

2. If you don’t lead an active life, don’t eat too much grain.

3. Respect your ancestors — eat traditionally prepared grain foods.

4. Avoid highly processed grain-based “food products” (fat-free / low-fat crackers and chips are the worst).


Feel like baking some lovely old-fashioned bread now? Jim Lahey’s recipe (as told by Mark Bittman) is the best place to start. It’s exceedingly simple, you don’t have to knead anything, and it makes incredible, crusty, flavorful bread. All you need is a heavy, oven-safe pot. (The recipe uses white flour, but you can use whole-grain. I’d start with a mix of half and half, though, at least until you get the hang of it.)

Don’t forget the butter!

* Here’s a summary of the various theories about how and why humans started farming. The latest (and my favorite) suggests co-evolution of humans and plants, each adapting to the needs of the other. (And yes, I know, grains are technically fruits rather than seeds. I just like to call them seeds — it’s more poetic, somehow.)

** In my work as an herbalist, I’ve come across people who are so sensitive to carbohydrates that they can’t eat any grain at all, even old-fashioned grain. These people find that even a small serving of grain puts them on a blood sugar roller-coaster that leads to weight gain and all sorts of health problems. How do you know if you’re one of these people? Try it out. Stop eating grains (and sweets) for a while. See how you feel.

(Geeky aside: I have noticed that many of these highly carbohydrate-sensitive people were bottle-fed babies. I think there might be a connection. Here’s a bit of rat-research food for thought.)

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Commonsense eating: I am not you.

One human being is not like another.

You with me?

(Yeah, I know, cue the silly song.)

But it’s self-explanatory, right? The fact that we aren’t clones?

So why is it that in all the fussing and fighting about nutrition, nobody seems to pay attention to this obvious fact?

The food one person needs to eat is not necessarily the same as the food another person needs to eat.



Why do the “experts” act like we’re interchangeable?

Yes, yes, I realize the USDA launched to much fanfare not long ago. But guess what? For those of us who aren’t pregnant or breastfeeding, there are only 12 possible “food patterns” recommended by that system. And all 12 suggest the same mix of foods—they vary only by the number of calories “allowed.” That’s not individualized, folks. (I have a lot of other biting things to say about the USDA recommendations, but I’ll save them for future posts.)

So, what does a person need to know about herself to get a sense of what foods are good for her?

Let’s see…

Ancestors. What did your ancestors eat before industrial food took over? (We evolve with our food, remember?) You don’t need to re-create some mythic ancestral diet, just pay attention to the broad strokes. Say your ancestors were Japanese—they probably didn’t drink much milk. So it might be best to skip the daily 2-3 cups recommended by the USDA. (Of course, it’s likely your digestive system already let you know about that via “lactose intolerance.”)

Don’t worry about this if you’re a mongrel like I am. (Cornwall? Potenza? Donegal? Normandy? Prague? And those are just my mother’s ancestors!) See “the bottom line” below.

Constitution. Someone asked me about her diet recently. She said she ate a “good diet”—mostly salads, fish, and yogurt. But she still didn’t feel well. Thing is, she has a cool constitution. Salads, fish, and yogurt are all cooling foods. So she was giving her body exactly what it didn’t need.

Do you run hot? Tend to irritation and inflammation? Eat cooling foods like, um, salads, fish, and yogurt! Do you tend to cold? Feel drained and depleted? Eat warming foods like spiced broths and braised meats. Tend to dryness? Eat moistening foods like flax and barley, and make sure you get enough fat. Does your body tend to feel damp and “bogged down”? Drying foods like bitter greens are in order, and be sure to go easy on grains. Notice a pattern here?

It goes beyond the traditional hot/cold, moist/dry constitutional categories too, of course. Some people just need more of certain foods than other people do. (Again, see “the bottom line” below.)

Climate. Live in a dry climate? You need more moistening foods. Hot climate? Cooling foods. You get the point. The same goes for seasons in temperate climates. Salads in the summer, soups in the winter. (You know this already, don’t you? Yep, see “the bottom line” below.)

Lifestyle. So, if you’re a logger you can probably afford to eat more grains and other carbohydrates than someone who types all day can. Hell, you need to eat more of everything. Your body will tell you. (You guessed it—see “the bottom line” below.)

The bottom line. You know better than any “pyramid” or diet book (or blog post!) what your body needs. Really, you do. Just pay attention.

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Commonsense eating: basics.

There were questions about nutrition after my posts on lard and schmaltz. So this is the first post in a series on Commonsense Eating.

I’m really rather conservative when it comes to food. Here are my basic principles:

Food is edible; industrial byproducts are not.

Remember how crisco was invented? That should have been a clue to the fact that it isn’t food.

Food comes from farms, not from factories.

So, it should be obvious, but Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are not farms. They are factories. The meat they produce may look like meat, but it’s not food. (Sneaky, I know.)

If your (or someone else’s) great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, it probably isn’t.

This is a good way to avoid industrial “food.” (What would the grandmothers have thought of those all-vegetable “chicken nuggets”? Probably not much.)

Best to respect food traditions.

Humans are mammals, and we evolve with our food. We don’t develop food traditions in a vacuum. Remember the tragedy of pellagra? That happened because our ancestors depended on the native food (corn) without the native tradition (nixtamalization).

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Thanksgiving, season of schmaltz.

This morning I was re-reading the (very timely and very wise) discussion of bird-roasting in a cookbook I usually love. But this time I noticed something that made me gasp and smack the page. The sentence began: “Remove and discard the lump of fat…”

Discard the lump of fat?!?! Is she crazy? Schmaltz is the most wonderful stuff. To discard it is absolutely ridiculous. (How very American, really, to remove and discard the lump of fat. The most nutritious, energy-rich part. The most flavorful part. To throw away the fat of the land. Such a waste, such a waste!)

Okay, okay, I’m done channeling the Ashkenazi grandmas of the world.

I’m just here to remind you that poultry fat is lovely stuff. If you’re roasting a bird this Thanksgiving, you should save its fat in a little jar in your refrigerator. You can use it to sauté vegetables, to flavor beans, to enrich sauces, to enliven soups… anyplace that wants a bit of tasty poultry richness. (And who wouldn’t want that?)

Just pour the extra fat off the juices in your roasting pan. And save the fat from the broth you make with the bones. And that little lump of fat inside the bird? You can leave it on if you like, and it will melt as the bird roasts. Or you can cut it off and render it as you would any other fat. Just please don’t throw it away, okay?

Happy Thanksgiving!

In case you’re geeky about fatty-acids (like I am), here are the details on all kinds of schmaltz (USDA data for 1 tablespoon of each):

Chicken fat: 2.7g polyunsaturated; 5.7g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

Duck fat: 1.7g polyunsaturated; 6.3g monounsaturated; 4.3g saturated.

Goose fat: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 7.3g monounsaturated; 3.5g saturated.

Turkey fat: 3g polyunsaturated; 5.5g monounsaturated; 3.8g saturated.

And for reference…

Olive oil: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 9.9g monounsaturated; 1.9g saturated.

Butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.

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Thank the Lard!

lardsmall.JPGLook what I got from the farmer down the road: gorgeous, creamy leaf lard!

What’s that? Did you whisper “Ew, lard!”?
Take a deep breath, it will be OK. The weird, illicit shiver Americans get when they hear someone say “lard” is rather new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of “lard” as an insult dates only from the 1940s.

See, chances are your great-grandmother cooked with lard. Likely your grandmother did too. (There’s a reason older people remember “grandma’s pie” and “grandma’s fried chicken” so fondly.) They probably only switched to poisonous hydrogenated vegetable shortening in the fifties or sixties, when “experts” started to warn about the dangers of saturated fats, and Procter & Gamble picked up on it in their Crisco* advertising. (“It’s all vegetable. It’s digestible!”)

Funny thing is, according to the USDA, lard contains more monounsaturated fatty acids (think olive oil) than saturated ones. Here’s the fatty acid breakdown for one tablespoon of lard: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 5.8g monounsaturated; 5g saturated. (For reference, a tablespoon of butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.) So even if you buy the “saturated fat is the devil” theory (and I don’t), lard is not unhealthy.

So how did we get to the point where the word “lard” must be said with a whisper and a giggle? It’s really rather strange. People sigh about indulging in “too much” butter. But if you suggest using butter in cooking, no one looks at you in horror. The word “butter” doesn’t evoke gasps or blushes.

Whatever the issue, I think it’s time we got over it. Lard is a wonderful cooking fat. There’s nothing in the world that can equal a leaf lard pie crust for flakiness.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy real lard in the grocery store. Grocery store lard is partially hydrogenated to give it a uniform texture and a longer shelf life. (It’s really just Crisco made from industrial pig fat instead of industrial soy and cottonseed oils.)

There are a couple of places online that sell pure rendered lard from happy (read: well-treated on small farms) pigs. Mother Linda’s is one, though she doesn’t always have enough to supply all her customers. And there’s at least one supplier on LocalHarvest that will ship.

It’s much easier to get lard from a local pig farmer or butcher in fresh, unrendered form. This means you need to melt it down yourself. But that’s not so hard. It’s really rather fun.

If you want to use your lard to make pie crusts, try to get leaf lard (the soft, creamy fat from around the pig’s kidneys). It has a unique crystalline structure that makes incredibly flaky pastry. Fatback is a harder fat from (you guessed it) along the back of the pig. It’s old time Appalachian food—the classic addition to a pot of greens. (Farmers sometimes also sell mixed fat from other parts of the pig, but the quality isn’t as good.)

To render lard, just chop it up the best you can (smaller pieces will render faster) and put it in a heavy pot with a bit of water on the bottom. Put the pot on low heat. Stir as often as you can remember. It will take hours to render. You can speed the process up a little by squishing the whole bit with a potato masher once it’s started to melt. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It will make the lard taste greasy and fried.

When the unmelted bits start to sink, strain off the nice, clear lard. This is the stuff for pie crusts. If it looks like there’s still a lot of fat on what’s left, put it back on the heat to render some more. This second batch will be stronger tasting than the first, but still useful for things like cornbread and greens—and frying, of course.

Strain your rendered lard through cheesecloth into clean jars. You can store the extra in the freezer.

Happy baking!

*Yes, I know there’s “zero trans-fat per serving” Crisco now. Turns out that may be even more poisonous than the original. Are you surprised?

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Bad medicine: my run-in with a fancy cardiologist.

I recently spent some time at a hospital with a family member who had a heart attack. And I’m shocked to be reminded of the mainstream medical establishment’s attitude toward food.

This is what a cardiologist said about his patient at one of New England’s “finest” hospitals:

He certainly seems to enjoy his food! [Snicker.] Well, I think we know what caused this heart attack, don’t we? [Wink, wink.] Probably not much chance of a heart-healthy diet for him, is there? All that fat…. [Shaking his head.] Well, we’ll just make sure he takes lots—and I mean lots—of lipitor. [Smiling as he moves on to the next patient-victim.]


Classic food puritanism mixed with backward nutritional advice. What a doctor.

His first mistake: Assuming that the enjoyment of food is inherently unhealthy. (After all, pleasure is a sin, isn’t it?)

His second mistake: Defining a “heart-healthy” diet as low in fat but not necessarily low in sugar. (None of the hospital’s nutritional literature mentioned the relationship between blood sugar and heart disease.)

His third mistake: Declaring that there’s no use bothering with a patient’s diet when you can prescribe medications instead. (Especially medications with dangerous side effects.)

Absolutely infuriating, this cardiologist.

My boyfriend says I “shouted him down.” Not quite, though I might have been a little sharp. After all, he was a condescending twit.

I’m not going to go into all the details of why the conventional “heart-healthy” low-fat diet is wrongheaded. For that, you might check out Nina Planck’s Real Food: What to Eat and Why.

But I will say this: Doctors seem to be most comfortable condemning and blessing foods in categories: butter is bad, olive oil is good; beef is bad, fish is good. But really it’s not like that at all. It’s a question of what kind of butter or olive oil, beef or fish. Conventional feedlot beef and butter are straight-out poisonous, it’s true. But grassfed beef and butter contain Omega-3s and CLA—truly “heart-healthy” fats. Likewise organic extra virgin olive oil and wild-caught fish are great for your heart, but solvent and pesticide-laden “pure” olive oil and antibiotic-laced farmed fish are not.

So the challenge for this family member of mine is not to eliminate all fat from his diet, but to learn the difference between butter and butter, between fish and fish, between olive oil and olive oil—to learn the difference between modern industrial foods (refined sugar and flour, hydrogenated oils, fake sweeteners) and real, nutritious foods (traditional fats, grassfed meat, fermented whole grains).

(Oh, yeah, I can’t even begin to write about the food they fed him in the hospital. Are they trying to murder people, or what?)

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Taking pleasure in food: a new genre of diet books.

Sorry about the lack of blogposts lately. I’ve been traveling in North Carolina and West Virginia, visiting family and enjoying the sudden spring. (My mother’s peach tree is in full bloom, and my sister’s yard is dotted with tasty little bittercress.)

Whenever I’m around these parts I try to visit my favorite Appalachian independent bookstore—Malaprop’s, in Asheville, North Carolina. And of course, being the person I am, I spend a good deal of time in the food section. I noticed something funny this time: French Women Don’t Get Fat seems to have spawned a whole new genre of diet books. Mediterranean Women Stay Slim Too and Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat  were nearby on the shelf.

Now, I didn’t study the books in depth, but the gist of each of them seems to be that if you follow this or that culture’s intact food tradition, you’re likely to be healthy. Right. Eat traditional foods, stay away from industrial processed “food,” get moderate exercise in your daily life, and you’ll be healthy. This is not a surprise.

But these books are onto something else most diet books tend to miss: the importance of taking pleasure in food. This gives me hope for the future of American eating. Maybe these books can begin to erode our culture’s peculiar brand of food Puritanism—the stubborn belief that bad-tasting food is good for you and good-tasting food is bad for you, that pleasure in food is a sin, and that bad health is punishment for the sin of pleasure in food. And if we can get over that ridiculous hangup, imagine how healthy we might be!

Pleasure in food is one of my favorite topics. Watch this space for more on some fascinating research that suggests that we get more nutrition from food we enjoy.

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Food sensitivities vs. bad-food sensitivities

Food sensitivities are in style now. Gluten/wheat and casein/dairy are the most commonly cited offenders. I have a suspicion about this: most people feel better when they eliminate wheat and dairy from their diets because most wheat and dairy products people eat are just plain bad food.

I don’t doubt the existence of food sensitivities. I have several herbal clients who have clear negative reactions to gluten and/or casein in any form. For them, scrupulous avoidance is the only choice. But I think there’s a difference between a true food sensitivity and the universal sensitivity to bad food. And to help determine that difference, I’ve added some elements to the tried-and-true elimination diet.

The old-time common-sense approach is: if a food makes you feel bad, don’t eat it. An elimination diet is just a fine-tuning of that sensible bit of advice. These are the elements of a traditional elimination diet:

For at least 3 weeks, avoid all potential trigger foods. (I like to develop a list of potential trigger foods based on an individual’s health status, ancestry and dietary history. The most common trigger foods are: dairy, wheat and other gluten grains, corn, soy, rice, eggs, citrus, fish and nuts.)

At the end of the month, reintroduce the foods one at a time, carefully observing possible reactions. (Each food needs to be eaten in quantity on two occasions, separated by 2-3 days in order to “prime” the immune system for a potential reaction.)

To this sensible system, I add the following:

In addition to avoiding potential trigger foods during the elimination and testing period, avoid all foods on the bad or sketchy food lists. And when you reintroduce the suspected trigger food, reintroduce it in the healthiest form available (e.g., if you suspect wheat, reintroduce it as long-fermented sourdough or levain-type bread rather than pasta or quick bread).

I suspect that using this system, quite a few people who feel they’re sensitive to all wheat (or dairy, or corn, etc., etc.) might find they’re only sensitive to the bad or sketchy forms of the food in question.

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Sketchy food.

Last time I wrote about straight-up bad foods—foods to avoid if you possibly can. Now I need to tackle sketchy-but-sometimes-unavoidable foods. This is more nebulous territory, which is why I’ve been avoiding writing this post for days.

Sketchy food is not as clear-cut as bad food because it affects different people in different ways. Some people can tolerate moderate amounts of refined sugar, for example, but other people can’t tolerate it at all. So my list of sketchy foods is really a list of foods to be aware of, foods to be careful with, and definitely foods to avoid if you have unresolved health problems.

Suspect #1: Heavily refined and processed foods.

White sugar and white flour are the obvious ones here. Too much of these bleached-out “carbs” can send you into Syndrome X territory. But let’s not forget that ubiquitous over-refined and processed of “health foods”: soy. (Soy milk, soy cheese, soy meat, isolated soy protein powder, etc.) I’m always suspicious of newly-invented industrial foods, and soy products are no different. Touted as miracle foods when they were introduced, there’s increasing evidence that all of these processed soy products could be hazardous. (Canola oil is another invented industrial food. Originally called LEAR oil—for Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed—Canola was bred from Rape, which produces high levels of toxic erucic acid. Canola oil still contains low levels of the toxin, and I don’t think there’s any reason to eat it when there are plenty of good oils out there.)

Suspect #2: Unfermented grains and beans.

In traditional diets, grains and beans are usually fermented—through overnight soaking, wild yeast leavening, partial sprouting, etc. Fermentation makes the cooking process shorter, but it also changes the chemical makeup of the beans and grains, making them much easier to digest. (Yes, I know this applies to a huge swath of American food: pasta, crackers, cereal, etc.)

Suspect #3: Pasteurized dairy.

Raw milk contains enzymes that make it significantly easier to digest than pasteurized milk. Raw milk also contains immune-supporting proteins that are denatured by the pasteurization process. For more on raw milk, check out the Campaign for Real Milk. (Higher temperature pasteurization is more damaging to the proteins, so ultra-pasteurized milk is especially sketchy.)

Suspect #4: Grain-fed meat and dairy.

So, when cows (or sheep, or goats, etc.) eat grass, they produce healthy fats. When they’re fed grain and soy and their ground-up compatriates and who knows what else, the fat they produce is not so good for humans. You can’t always tell what the animals ate when you’re looking at a label in a grocery store, so you might have to do some detective work. For meat, look for “grass fed” on the label. For dairy, check out the dairy scorecard.

All four suspects are pretty much everywhere. Like I said before, I’m not into food fascism—but if you’re working with serious unresolved health problems, eliminating these sketchy foods is a good place to start.

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