Five Years Plus

{July 3, 2011}   The New Crunchy

It’s been quite some time since I’ve eaten granola, save the odd emergency bar during a long tennis match. But I miss it, the comfort food of my adolescence. In 1973 my Mom returned from a visit to her family in Eastern Canada bearing gifts – a bag of a new kind of cereal called “granola” and a Neil Diamond album called Hot August Night that included the song, Crunchy Granola – “Drop your shrink and stop your drinkin’, crunchy granola’s neat!” Mom immediately got on the case and created a recipe including 12 cups rolled outs, 2 cups sunflower seeds, 1 cup melted honey, 1 cup safflower oil and more, all baked together in a big pan. It was delicious and the granola jar was just wide enough to get your hand in for a favorite after school snack.

It wasn’t long after that granola caught on across North America, touted as the new health food. Soon “being crunchy” became synonymous with being a natural type of person, referring to “the crunch of granola, which (as goes the stereotype) hippie-esque people are likely to eat”. Since the 70’s granola has become mainstream. I know this because my son used to eat granola bars for breakfast and there is a whole aisle full of nothing but such bars in the grocery store. This once “health food” may now be filled with dangerous non-foods such as high fructose corn syrup and highly processed soy protein.

But was granola ever really a health food? On the pro side, my Mom’s was made from mostly whole ingredients, processed at home and infused with a mother’s love and care. But even good granola is primarily carbohydrate including a great deal of simple sugar. Look for example at the nutritional analysis of one of the better quality commercial granolas, Bear Naked. One serving provides 140 calories: 18 grams carbohydrate (6 grams sugar from honey, maple syrup and sugar-sweetened cranberries), 3 grams protein and 7 grams fat. Watch out though, one serving is only 1/4 cup. Aside from all that sugar, granola is largely made from its namesake – grain. Mainstream nutrition literature touts whole grains as a staple, but grains can irritate the digestive system and cause a host of health problems in some people. Since having cancer I’ve cut way back on sugar (which can feed many kinds of tumors) and also cut out grains almost entirely to avoid the inflammation they can cause. So even the best granola isn’t on my menu.

Imagine my delight when last year I discovered a raw grainless version made by Lydia’s Organics. Since then, following in my mother’s footsteps, I have worked out a new recipe that is too good to keep to myself. I call this Paleola, as I follow a Paleo. It fits the bill as a vegan, raw, gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free and fat-free, thereby making it suitable for almost any eating regimen. It is delicious, healthy and yes crunchy too!


  • 3 pounds apples
  • 2 cups sunflower seeds
  • 6 dates
  • 6 figs
  • 6 apricots
  • ½ cup goji berries
  • 2 cups walnuts
  • 1 1/2 cups pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp salt (optional)

The nuts and seeds should be raw and refrigerated before and after purchase. Ideally everything should be organic.

Making Paleola requires some organization, a food processor, a sprout jar and a dehydrator.  It is fairly labor intensive, but well worth it. If you’re planning to make Paleola on Wednesday, for example, you will start on Sunday night. Remember, this is a labor of love!

Sunday overnight: Soak 2 cups sunflower seeds in a large sprouting jar (at least 4 cups) for 8 hours. Over the next couple of days you will keep these in a dark place and rinse twice a day. Drain well after each rinsing. They will grow a tail as long as the seed in this time. In warm weather be alert as they can turn sour if you miss a rinsing or grow them too long. If the sprouts are done but you’re not ready to make Paleola you can store them in the fridge for up to two days.

Tuesday morning: The rest of the nuts and seeds should be soaked and dried before using, as they contain anti-nutrients that soaking helps to deactivate. I do each nut or seed separately a pound of each at a time so my dehydrator is full. I keep the rest on hand for using as a condiment or for the next time I make Paleola. These soaking directions come from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.

Soak the nuts/seeds in water, in a ratio of 4 cups of water to 1 tbsp salt. After 6 hours rinse the cashews and put them in the dehydrator on the hottest setting. Two hours later rinse the rest of the nuts and put them in the dehydrator. You will continue to dry the cashews as well. At this point you want to get the temperature as close as possible to 110 degrees without going over. Continue to dry the nuts in the dehydrator overnight.

Wednesday morning: Take the nuts and seeds out of the dryer and let them cool to room temperature. Take out what you need for the recipe and store the rest in glass jars. I’m not sure you need to keep them in the fridge at this point but that’s what I do.

Core and cut the apples, and grate them with the appropriate food processor attachment. After grating use the S blade attachment to gently process the apples a little more. If you miss this extra step your Paleola will be stringy. Next, use the S blade to process the sprouted sunflower seeds so they get chopped a little. It is better to process both the apples and seeds in small batches. Now, use kitchen scissors to cut the dried fruit into tiny pieces. Excessively dry fruit will need to be soaked first. Add the cinnamon, cayenne and salt and mix well. Divide evenly into your dehydrator trays and dry at the same temperature as you did the nuts, 110 degrees. Stir after about six hours. Depending upon your dryer it will be at least another six hours before this mixture is dry.

Next you mix in the dried nuts and seeds. The nuts are a feature of this recipe. You want them to be a little chunky and have a nice shape. You can chop them in the food processor, but I think it’s worth it to prepare them by hand. Pecans can be sliced into three slivers following the spine of the nut, the cashews can coaxed in half where they naturally divide. The pumpkin seeds and walnuts just need to be coarsely chopped or leave the pumpkin seeds whole if you prefer. Of course you could dry the chopped nuts with the apple and sunflower mixture and skip the separate drying step. My dryer isn’t big enough and I like to dry a lot of nuts at once for other uses. Suit yourself.

Depending how much you munch along the way, this makes about 16 cups. It is very concentrated, so use it sparingly – 1/4 cup is still the ideal serving size. Together with almond milk and currently mangoes, it makes a superb finishing touch to our Special Breakfast.

Paleola is a concentrated food and should be used as a condiment. It is also a great emergency food in my tennis bag or for travel. Eating well takes attention, time and commitment. Trust me though, once you have the knack of making Paleola it is a worthwhile way to spend a little of your precious time.


{August 14, 2010}   The D-bate

Prior to my first thermography appointment (in less than a week) I have done a lot of research on imaging and early detection. While learning some fascinating facts on cancer screening and diagnosis, I have begun to question whether the emphasis on detection and diagnosis might completely miss the point. What about preventing cancer in the first place?

I despair at attempting a comprehensive answer which would include proper nutrition, suitable physical exercise, stress and inflammation reduction, avoidance of toxins (e.g. industrial chemicals, pollutants, pesticides, drugs, tobacco smoke, alcohol, and ionizing radiation), a healthy mental attitude, nourishing family and social relationships and beliefs (religious or spiritual) that connect us to something larger than ourselves. The prospect of trying to comprehend and apply all of this is almost enough to send me scampering back to the straightforward recommendations of my doctors and the seeming certainty of the Standard of Care.

This week I want to focus attention on the debate on vitamin D. There is promising evidence that it has a role in the prevention and treatment of breast cancer and other diseases, but the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute do not currently recommend vitamin D supplements. Beyond a basic multivitamin, many people do not regularly take supplements. There is a common belief that “if we eat properly we will get everything we need” and the conventional medical system has downplayed the importance of supplements. So what is the evidence for and against taking vitamin D supplements?

The case for vitamin D supplementation

Vitamin D is a pro-hormone that influences many genes. Proper levels of vitamin D have been linked to improved muscle strength, proper immune function, reduced inflammation and absorption of calcium and phosphate required for bone health. Our skin produces Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Today about half the adults in developed countries have deficient levels of vitamin D probably due to lower exposure to unscreened sunlight. The role of Vitamin D in cancer prevention first became apparent in the 1990s through geographic correlation studies showing that individuals living in southern latitudes have lower incidence and death rates from cancer. In the laboratory Vitamin D slows the growth and increases the differentiation and death of cancer cells. In a four year randomized clinical trial of 1200 healthy post-menopausal women found that women taking calcium (1400-1500 mg) and Vitamin D (1100IU) together had a 60 percent lower incidence of cancer overall than the women taking a placebo. A 2009 article published in the Annals of Epidemiology concluded that if the population at large raised levels of Vitamin D to optimum levels, 58,000 new cases of breast cancer and 49,000 new cases of colorectal cancer could be prevented annually and ¾ of all deaths from these two diseases could be avoided. Grassroots Heath (a organization of scientists promoting public health) published a Vitamin D call to action statement and posted a video calling for increased research and stating that delays in encouraging daily supplementation of Vitamin D3 of 2000 IU per day is leading to a great deal of unnecessary loss of life.

The case against vitamin D supplementation

Much of the evidence sited above comes from observational studies (based on questionnaires) that are inherently inaccurate. The one randomized clinical trial sited above was focused on bone health, not cancer prevention, and did not test the effect of vitamin D without calcium. The National Cancer Institute’s summary of the direction of Vitamin D research in the last 20 years concludes that evidence for Vitamin D’s benefits is “limited and inconsistent”. Vitamin D for breast cancer prevention is not in the American Cancer Society summary of current and proposed research on breast cancer. The Vitamin D Council suggests that the lack of research may be because Vitamin D is simply too cheap. “Therefore, the idea that [vitamin D] could help breast cancer offered no financial incentive to drug companies or researchers hoping to discover a drug they could patent.”

So what do I think?

I have my doubts about any magic bullet for tricky diseases like cancer and the compelling figures given are undermined by the deficiencies of the current research. But given that there is no harm caused by testing vitamin D levels and supplementing at 2000 IU per day, it seems like a no-brainer to do it.

I have my vitamin D levels tested regularly via the 25 hydroxy vitamin D blood test and have taken vitamin D3 supplements since I was first diagnosed. My results have never been dangerously low, but they have regularly been below the recommended 40-80 ng/ml. When doubling my daily supplement didn’t significantly raise my blood serum levels of vitamin D, my nutritionist recommended that I use a form that includes isoflavones to help the absorption. She told me that some people are genetically predisposed to have lower vitamin D levels. It’s shocking to think that insufficient levels of vitamin D might be related to both my mother’s and my own breast cancer.

I believe that taking dietary supplements (vitamins, minerals, probiotics, enzymes, herbs and other compounds that detoxify and support the immune system and certain organs) is one of the easiest things we can do to improve our health and help prevent disease, yes, even cancer. I consult a nutritionist 3 to 4 times each year to help me refine my eating and modify my supplement and dosage schedule to suit my changing needs. Currently I take 16 different supplements every day. I think it’s very helpful to have professional help in deciding on what to take. Our local health food store Natur-tyme offers free mini-consultations that can help people start on a supplement program.

In the nearly six years I have regularly taken supplements I have rarely been sick, my moods have continued to stabilize and I have less muscular and joint pain in my body. My massage therapist noticed that over time my body tissue has become more pliable and hydrated. Granted, supplements are not the only healing modality I have used and thus I cannot say how much is one thing and how much another. As the D-bate goes on, I take the tiny pill each morning, test my blood levels each year, and gently expose my skin to the sun whenever our upstate New York weather allows.

{July 11, 2010}   The Cream of the Crop

This week we have experienced extremely hot, humid days that remind me of living in the tropics. In 1991 I spent the summer in Mysore, India, studying yoga with Pattabhi Jois. On my bike ride home after each morning’s vigorous sweaty practice, I stopped at the coconut vendor’s stand to replenish my energy with the satisfying fluid and white succulent flesh of a young coconut. My coconut vendor knew I preferred plenty of water and a minimum amount of flesh. After tapping a number of the round, green coconuts to listen to each ones distinctive sound, he would choose one, hack it open with his cleaver and let me pick out a colorful straw. After I had savored the sweet, clear liquid I would hand it back, asking him to “open”. He would carve a scraper from the coconut husk itself and expertly split the coconut  into two for me to scoop out the thin layer of slippery innards. (This photo by Vikas Kamat shows a common method of coconut transport in India.)

Now, nearly twenty years later, my husband hacks open the young coconut I buy from our grocery store with the precision gained from a couple of months of practice. These coconuts appear to be an off-white color because the outer skin has been stripped away to give a flat-bottomed and pointy topped shape (see photo below from Melissa’s website). Inside this lies the seed of the coconut. The water inside is completely hygienic and under slight pressure. The amount of flesh clinging to the inside of the nut varies considerably; when scraped away it can yield between a couple of tablespoons to a cup or more of pulp. Coconuts with more pulp generally contain less water. These tender coconuts are picked before they are ripe when the liquid inside is sweet, almost clear, and the flesh is soft, thin and easily separated from the shell.  Mature coconuts from which the familiar dessicated coconut is made are different. They have thick white flesh and a cloudy, perhaps bitter liquid inside.

Since I committed to a Paleo diet, young coconuts have found their way into our diet. Coming from Thailand, I realize that they are a long way from local but I make an exception because they are such a wonderful healthy treat and remind me of my years living in India. I chose coconut as the base when I decided to create a raw, vegan, paleo, sugar-free ice cream recipe. I recommend using whole young coconuts if you can. They taste so pure and you can blend both the pulp and coconut water together, rather than only getting the blended meat that canned coconut milk is made from.

The coconut oil in this mix is not only good for the hair and skin, but also bestows a plethora of health benefits, contributing to stress relief, maintaining cholesterol levels, weight loss, increased immunity, proper digestion and metabolism, relief from kidney problems, bone strength and dental health. Coconut oil has also been associated with improvements in conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV, and cancer. The main active ingredients providing these benefits appear to be lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid which show antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Specifically, digestion converts lauric acid into monolaurin which appears to be active against the viruses causing influenza, herpes, AIDS and others. It also appears to thwart disease caused by harmful bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes and heliobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia.

Ginger Coco-Cream

  • 2 young coconuts – use all the pulp and up to 1½ cups of the water (or 2 – 13.5 oz cans of coconut milk)
  • 4 tsp ginger juice, grated ginger or ginger powder
  • 4-6 soaked, pitted dates or 2 tbsp xylitol
  • 8-12 drops liquid stevia

With cleaver, open the coconut and drain out liquid. Chop coconut in half. This takes some force, as if splitting wood. Use an upside down spoon to peel the flesh out of shell. Remove any hard bits and rinse if needed. Blend flesh from the 2 coconuts with 1.5 cups of coconut water. You will probably end up with extra water which you can drink straight or add to homemade almond milk. If you have a juicer, simply juice the whole ginger root – no need to peel. Add remaining ingredients and blend thoroughly. Freeze using an ice cream maker of your choice. Makes about 4 one cup servings.

Chocolate Coco-Cream

  • 2 young coconuts – use all the pulp and up to 1½ cups of the water (or 2 cans coconut milk)
  • 6 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • Pinch cayenne
  • 4-6 soaked, pitted dates or 2 tbsp xylitol
  • 12-16 drops liquid stevia
  • ½ cup lightly chopped raw macadamia nuts (optional)

Follow directions as above. I make this recipe with a raw cacao powder that is grown and produced in Bali, Indonesia. Its flavor has incredible depth that is makes this product well-worth the effort to find.

Coco-cream is meant to be enjoyed in small quantities. Although made from top quality ingredients, it is a concentrated high calorie, high fat food. I serve it in small ceramic bowls so we get the feeling of eating a full dish. It is best to eat it right away as the texture is best right out of the ice cream maker. Because it does not contain emulsifiers, it will freeze solid if you put it in the freezer. In this case, simply let it soften up at room temperature before eating.

Making your own ice cream takes a considerable amount of effort and equipment. However, it is very satisfying to create such a delicious treat and you know exactly what is in it.

{June 27, 2010}   Strawberry Fields

Strawberries are the most popular berry worldwide and are available all year round from Californian or imported sources. Here in upstate New York the local strawberry season is brief,  sandwiched between  summer solstice and the fourth of July. I have picked berries with my good friend Bodhi for three years now. Yesterday we finally found a day we were free and Cobblestone Farm’s organic strawberry patch was open. By chance Deb and her daughter Mel were able to join us.

Strawberries are one of the foods I aim to always eat organic, as conventionally grown ones are heavily sprayed. In fact, this year strawberries are number 3 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. This list rates the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables most likely to contain high pesticide residues, even after washing. Eating organic (where pesticide use is prohibited) or eliminating these most contaminated foods can reduce ones exposure to pesticides by 80 percent. It’s really worth following the link to check these foods out; for those of you who want to read it here, starting from the worst, here are this year’s “dirty dozen”: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, kale, cherries, potatoes and grapes.

According to the Environmental Working Group, up to 59 pesticides were detected in residue on strawberries. The PAN Pesticides Database is a document that quantifies the amount of 50 common pesticides used on Californian (the primary strawberry growing state) fields. In 2008 a whopping 9,686,580 pounds of pesticides were applied, amounting to an average of 7 pounds of pesticides for every acre of strawberry fields treated (some acres are treated more than once).

"A dense canopy of leaves"

Methyl bromide, one of the pesticides used on conventionally grown strawberries, has received a great deal of attention worldwide. It is a colorless, odorless gas that is used as a soil fumigant to help control weeds, soil-borne diseases, nematodes and insects. Respiratory, kidney and neurological effects are noted health risks and farm workers are particularly susceptible. Methyl bromide is also a recognized ozone depleting chemical. In response to a 2002 amendment to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, its use is being phased out for all uses in all countries. While this was intended to be completed by 2005 in America, a “critical use” exemption has extended this deadline in some areas. The PAN report shows that 2.7 million pounds were still being applied to Californian strawberry fields in 2008. The irony is that organic growing methods are available, can be even more profitable than conventional methods and do not use chemicals that are toxic to the ozone, the earth, farm workers and consumers.

I picked about 30 pounds of chemical-free berries in just over two hours. Not only is picking strawberries physically demanding, it’s a bit of a hunt. The berries are hidden under a dense canopy of leaves and especially in the case of organic strawberries, weeds. I alternate between bending over with a straight back, squatting and later in the morning, picking from my hands and knees. This latter method only works when the berries are plentiful, which fortunately for us, was the case yesterday morning. Below are some picking tips I have developed over the years:

  1. Arrive early.
  2. Remember to bring containers to put picked berries in and a few extra just in case you strike a bumper day.
  3. Resist the temptation to pick the berries where the pointy tip is still green or white. They aren’t ripe and strawberries won’t ripen further once picked.
  4. Pay attention to your body mechanics and stop before you drop.
  5. Remember it takes at least as long to prepare the berries when you get home as it did to pick them.

Deb & Mel: the "straight back" method

Of course, strawberry grazing on the field is one of the highlights of the pick your own experience. I find biting into a strawberry an adventure. Even when choosing that perfect berry to sample, I never know for sure whether it will be bursting with the essence of sweet, deep strawberry-ness or be mouth-puckeringly tart. Each berry is a little different and I pay attention to its unique flavor even as I continue to pick.

Bodhi: the "squatting" posture

What do I do with all those berries, you might ask? I like to eat strawberries year round, as according to Ann Louise Gittleman[1], they contain a cancer-protective agent called ellagic acid and a phyto-nutrient that helps the liver break down excess toxins. So besides a two week in-season feast, I mainly freeze them whole with stems removed to use in smoothies and with Special Breakfast.  I am taking the extra time to first freeze them flat on a cookie tray before bagging them, as last year they stuck together, retained a lot of moisture and became icy. I am also planning to make ice cream (more about this in a future blog) and some strawberry-rhubarb jam for my sister. In the meantime each time I open my fridge I am transported back to the strawberry field by sight and smell. Summer is definitely here.

[1] Fat Flush Foods, New York: McGraw Hill, 2004

{May 23, 2010}   What Came First?

What came first?

A friend recently asked me for advice about how to begin eating more local foods. Using local eggs is a great place to start. When we buy eggs from the supermarket, there is no telling where the eggs came from, how old they are, how the chickens were raised or what they were fed. “Does any of that matter?” you may ask. “After all, I only eat one or two eggs a week.” Read on and you’ll discover just how much it matters and how much you might be missing out on.

Let’s start with why it’s important to buy local eggs. Supermarket eggs generally travel a long way from the chicken farm to the shelf. The “sell by” date on the egg carton can be up to 45 days from the pack date, so let’s just say these eggs are not “fresh”. Conventionally (as opposed to organically) raised chickens have likely been fed animal by-products, had antibiotics administered and may even have ingested arsenic[1]. That stuff gets into the eggs and gets into you when you eat the supermarket eggs.

Conventional "cage-free" chickens. Photo by Larry Rana

The best eggs come from chickens that have space to roam outdoors (pastured poultry) and eat a diet of grasses, worms and bugs plus additional whole foods like vegetables, corn, oats and flax. The yolks from chickens that have been pasture raised will be golden yellow. Beware though, if you plan to hard-boil the eggs make sure they are at least a week old or you will face a nightmare when trying to peel them.

At this time of year you will find an abundance of local eggs for sale at farmer’s markets. Here you can feel free to ask the farmer directly about the chicken and the egg. You can ask how the chickens are raised, what they eat and whether they are given any antibiotics, and when the eggs were laid and how they were washed. Even if the farmer is not USDA Certified Organic, you can get a feel for the farmer and decide for yourself if you want to buy. If you are concerned that local eggs might not be cleaned sufficiently, you can wash them yourself in a bath of hydrogen-peroxide or Clorox (sodium hypchlorite – breaks down into salt and water)[2].

Here in Cazenovia we are fortunate to buy eggs directly from Lucky Moon Farm who produce vegetables, flowers, maple syrup and eggs. In the summer we are members of their vegetable CSA (Community Supported Agriculture – whereby we subscribe and receive a share of the crop) and have eggs delivered each week with our veggies. During the winter months I drive to the farm to pick up my eggs and always enjoy a small glimpse of farm-life. For some period each winter the hens take a rest. Sometimes local eggs continue to be available from another farm that supplies our local-foods restaurant.

I visited Lucky Moon Farm today to take some pictures of the roaming chickens. The twenty or so chickens were congregated around some fresh spinach which had come from the bed that the farmers were busy weeding. They come in and out of the barn at will and range into a fenced field beyond to eat grass or insects. We were treated to a viewing of the week old multi-colored chicks; not much bigger than an egg themselves, they will be laying their own eggs by December!

Pastured chickens at Lucky Moon Farm

Now here’s the thing about local farm-fresh organic pasture-raised eggs – my goodness are they delicious! They are so delicious you will want to eat them all the time, which is fine since eggs are no longer thought to have a significant impact on blood cholesterol[3]. By the way, am I the only one who grew up with egg-phobia, thinking I could only eat a couple of eggs per week?

Around the time I was born eggs began to get a bad rap as being high in cholesterol and linked to heart disease.  Occasionally my mother would make bacon and eggs, but apart from baking, eggs were generally saved for special occasions. She had two special egg dishes – her famous four inch high fluffy omelet which only she could successfully make, and “huskies in a snowdrift” (hotdogs embedded in a crispy eggs-terior). So most mornings, I made the hot cereal my conscientious mother prepared for breakfast palatable by drowning it in milk and brown sugar.

Imbued with a fear of eggs and cholesterol, I followed my mother’s lead and used eggs in a limited way. Cholesterol was supposed to be a killer by causing heart disease and eating eggs was thought to lead to high cholesterol. Isn’t it great that it isn’t so? Numerous studies have determined that eating one or two eggs per day has no impact on blood cholesterol or the risk of heart disease. There is debate as to whether even cholesterol in the blood is really the bad guy it is made out to be. Yet even so, some people still think whole eggs are an unhealthy food. The American Heart Association recommends eating the whites only since most of the fat and all of the cholesterol are contained in the yolk. Cholesterol paranoia is so ingrained that many people either discard the yolks or purchase egg whites in a box.

Most foods are most eggs-cellent eaten in their whole form and in fact, throwing out the yolk may be literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The yolk contains 1/3 of the protein and nearly all of the abundant amount of vitamins and minerals found in the egg. One whole large egg provides 6 grams of protein and is high in important vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, vitamin B12, phosphorus and selenium.

In 2003 I began to follow a system of eating outlined by Ann Louise Gittleman. She describes the egg as “one of nature’s most nutritious creations” and recommends eating up to two eggs per day[4]. I was delighted! I began to experiment with eating vegetable omelets for breakfast and eventually settled on regularly using eggs as my protein source at lunch. I like fried eggs, particularly the yolk. Sometimes I follow my childhood practice of eating the runny yolk separately with a small spoon, savoring the yellow liquid without surrendering even one drop to the plate. Another favorite is my version of eggs-salad: simply place two lightly fried eggs directly on top of a salad, pierce the yellow yolk and allow it to permeate through.

So enjoy your eggs.  Not only is the egg a healthy, delicious, protein-rich and relatively inegg-spensive food, it is also one of the easiest foods to obtain locally.

[1] Alexandra Zissu, The Conscious Kitchen (2010) New York: Clarkson Potter, pg.57

[2] Ann Louise Gittleman, Fat Flush Foods (2004) New York: McGraw Hill, pg. 136

[3] Consumer reports, January 2008, An eggs-planation.

[4] Ann Louise Gittleman, Fat Flush Foods (2004) New York: McGraw Hill, pg. 25

{May 15, 2010}   Soytistics

I was born in the era where women were encouraged by their doctors to use formula and forget breastfeeding. My mother, with three toddlers underfoot, found bottle-feeding with a milk-based formula convenient and it had the added bonus that my dad could more easily help. As the youngest the program was well-established in our household, but when it was my turn, I developed an allergy to the cow’s milk formula. Soy-based formula was the solution. Eventually the milk allergy resolved itself, but by that time, my love affair with soy had begun.

I learned to cook tofu as a sophomore in college. I would wrap the soft block  in cloth and press out the excess liquid with heavy textbooks before chopping it into cubes and sitting it in a soy sauce marinade. Later, gently sautéed, the warm salty exterior provided a sumptuous contrast to the silky inner. Next I discovered tempe, a fermented soy cake that has a chewy texture. Marinated and sautéed or added to spaghetti sauce it was delicious.

Around age 28 I went through a difficult time and discovered warm soy milk as the ultimate comfort food. It probably reminded me of the soy formula I had been fed by my parents many years before. I even made soy Bailey’s Irish cream, though didn’t hesitate to add that crucial can of sweetened condensed milk to the mix. After moving to America I developed a morning ritual of drinking Earl Grey tea with soy milk and and was thrilled to learn I could order creamy soy milk in my latte. I thought I was doing a good thing for both my body and the planet by regularly eating these soy foods.

I ignored it when a cook at a workshop I was attending in 2001 mentioned that soy milk might not be so good for me. There was no way that I was going to replace my thick creamy soy milk with rice milk, which seemed thin and watery by comparison. I was much happier to receive the inputs from the mainstream press that soy was a health food and its consumption could even help to prevent breast cancer. When I finally learned that eating large amounts of soy based foods can actually create havoc in the body I still didn’t want to believe it. How did I get it so wrong for so long regarding soy?

The answer to that has a lot of parts. A good place to start is the issue of bias. For example, when I was listening to all the good things about soy and filtering out suspicions about this food, I was exhibiting a human trait called confirmation bias. It is human nature to pay more attention to things that agree with opinions we already hold. It sets us up to ignore things that disagree with our positions until the contradictory input is overwhelming.

There was also a bias in the research I was reading in the 1990’s. For example, the conclusion that eating soy might prevent breast cancer was based on a correlation between the Japanese population and a lower incidence of breast cancer. However,  correlation does not equal causality. There are other factors at play like the amounts of fat and alcohol consumed. What’s more, the Japanese eat only small quantities of tofu and little or no soymilk, and most of the soy products in that diet are fermented, such as tempeh, miso and soy sauce. Fermented soy is chemically, enzymatically and metabolically distinct from non-fermented soy products. One important difference is that unfermented soy contains a large quantity of phytic acid, which can block the body’s absorption of essential minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Fermentation reduces this concentration and has other desirable effects.

Soy contains compounds called phytoestrogens which are plant produced substances that can bond to the estrogen receptors in human cells. The hypothesis that soy prevents breast cancer was based on the theory that the phytoestrogens offered protection by preventing human estrogen that encourages cell growth from occupying the receptors. Data from clinical studies doesn’t clearly support this theory and in fact, raises serious concerns that phytoestrogens from soy might accelerate the growth and or proliferation of cancerous tumors in some women. Debate continues and there are differing views on this issue.  Notably the American Cancer Society is no longer recommending consumption of soy.

Research also suggests that excessive soy consumption may disrupt normal thyroid function and some of the compounds in soy are toxic to the thyroid tissue.  There is a good deal of scientific evidence today that soy-based baby formula, although recommended by Dr. Benjamin Spock and others in the 1990’s, can be damaging to newborns.

With everything that is at stake, why hasn’t there been an outcry in the media to correct the misconceptions about soy? While not exactly an outcry, the mainstream media has reported the two sides to the soy question. Perhaps media consumers like simple points that can be turned into sound bites while nuanced discussions and fine distinctions make for poor headlines. It’s also possible that another bias is at work, since the multi-billion dollar soy agribusiness is served better while confusion on this point persists. The industry has been very successful promoting soy products as healthy through multi-million dollar advertising campaigns and intense lobbying of the FDA.

Soy protein is prevalent in many foods, both “health” and mainstream, and in animal feed, in part because of the fact that soy protein is a cheap industrial by-product of the production of soy oil. The hidden cost of making soy mass produced, cheap and plentiful is that over 90% of the soy sold in the United States is genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are touted to increase yields and resistance to pests, and provide better tolerance to environmental variations, all of which reduce costs. Monsanto introduced Round-up Ready Soybeans in 1996, which are genetically modified to tolerate the broad-spectrum herbicide Round-up (the number one seller in the world since 1980). Round-up kills just about everything in the soil it is applied to except the plants genetically modified to resist it. There are numerous scientific studies showing this herbicide’s toxicity, disruption of endocrine function and links to gene damage in humans.

So what is a health conscious soy lover like me to do? Decide for yourself. You can follow the links in this article to read research and opinions on soy and make up your own mind about whether, what kinds and how much soy is healthy for you. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Consider using soy products in moderation or eliminate them from the diet entirely. For example, serve a soy based appetizer like miso soup instead of serving tofu as a main dish.
  2. Use fermented soy products from a certified organic or other high-quality non-GMO source.
  3. Read labels to cut down on the unintended consumption of soy.
  4. Substitute soymilk with rice milk, almond milk or coconut water, all of which are available in the health food store. I make my own almond milk by soaking ½ cup almonds for 4 to 6 hours, sliding the skins off and blending at high speed with 3 cups of water. Strain through a muslin bag if desired. If straining, the almonds do not need to be peeled.
  5. Vote with your wallet. If we educate ourselves and buy accordingly, business will be forced to respond.

{May 1, 2010}   The Paleo Challenge

It began three weeks ago at a friend’s evening movie night. I had just dropped Chuck off at the airport for a business trip, which always makes me feel a little vulnerable when he leaves on a Sunday. We shared some pizza at the airport. When I arrived at the party, I had some pasta, meatloaf and salad and noticed that everyone seemed to have brought a dessert. There was apple pie, berry pie, homemade chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake and ice cream embedded with candy. What a treat! I tried a little of each one, which led to a little more of each one, and perhaps a wee bit more after that. It was fun and I didn’t completely stuff myself, but…

When I crawled into bed I noticed my body was buzzing with sugar and my mind was racing, full of thoughts and ideas. I tried to calm myself with breath and relaxation, but alas, I was too sugared-up to rest calmly in the arms of Morpheus. So, as I sometimes do, I lay in bed listening to a podcast to calm my own jumping thoughts by focusing on someone else’s. I was delighted to find a new episode of The Paleolithic Solution, a humorous and informative exploration of an approach to eating called the Paleo Diet. Just as I was about to drift into slumber I heard the voice say: “Most people never fully commit; they swing on “an oscillating pendulum of ridiculous eating on both sides of the spectrum”. Wow. That sounded like they recorded it for me personally. Right then and there, I decided to break that pattern and challenge myself to eat a Paleo diet for a full 30 days, paying attention to how my body responds. I call this my Paleo Challenge and I began it with enthusiasm the next morning.

The Paleo diet is based on the theory that humans evolved as hunter-gatherers for two and a half million years. Agriculture has only been around for ten thousand years and processed foods a few hundred at most – not long enough for our bodies to evolve. Therefore, the Paleo theory says, we are naturally most suited to eating foods that were available to hunter-gatherers during Paleolithic times. The diet features meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts, produced as naturally as possible. Since grains, legumes and dairy products were introduced only recently in the Neolithic era, they are excluded, as are added sugars with the exception of a small amount of honey.

There are two main motivations to follow a Paleo diet: health and athletic. By eliminating grains which are irritating to the digestive system, especially those containing gluten, a Paleo diet can be life-changing for people who have suffered with digestive or autoimmune issues. It can be helpful for many other conditions, including people dealing with diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions, as it combines protein in every meal with relatively low concentrations of sugar and starch. I haven’t found specific references for cancer prevention, but the diet does meet my criteria of being alkalizing, keeping blood sugar stable and providing adequate amounts of protein. Many athletes have found that a slightly modified Paleo diet enhances the building of muscle tissue, helps improve endurance and aids in after workout recovery.

Since my cancer diagnosis five years ago, I have followed a similar eating regimen, with the inclusion of yogurt, raw dairy products and occasional grains such as rice or quinoa. I was operating on the theory that cancer cells prefer an acidic enviroment with high levels of sugar. Avoiding the carbohydrates that tend to raise blood sugar quickly (added sugars, sweet fruits, fruit juice and processed grains) helps me to avoid spikes in blood sugar while eating plenty of vegetables keeps my body tissues more alkaline. While meat and fish do add to acidity, they stabilize blood sugar  and provide protein needed to maintain and build nerve, muscle and connective tissues.

I find it challenging to stick with my ideal eating system. I have times where I am eating consistently well and in turn I feel light and energized. At other times food seems to control me and despite my good intentions, I eat foods that make me feel sluggish and gain weight. In my 30-day Paleo Challenge, I’m enjoying cooking delicious and satisfying Paleo meals. Tonight I prepared salmon teriyaki, daikon slaw and fried zucchini. I don’t miss the rice and simply watch my desire for dessert after dinner rise and dissipate. I’ve included pictures of my beef kabob and slow-cooked chicken legs creations to whet the appetite of those of you who like to eat meat. You can also find recipe ideas and more photos at the Everyday Paleo blog of  a fitness trainer and mother of three.

The exploration of conscious eating I described in last week’s blog has been helpful in keeping me focused. Since I’m doing both Paleo, conscious eating and recently started a regular workout routine, I attribute the happiest unintended consequence to this unique combination; during the first 10 days of the Paleo Challenge, I miraculously and effortlessly dropped four pounds.

Today is Day 20 of 30 in the Paleo Challenge. This week was the hardest one thus far. I have had many slip-ups, plenty of events which included drinking alcohol and feel that familiar sugar craving coming back. Some might say that the diet is too extreme and my difficulties this week are simply a backlash. In fact, critics call Paleo a “fad” diet and unsustainable due to its emphasis upon meat and fish. I’m withholding judgment until I’ve sustained it for 30 days. Then I’ll decide for myself. In this home stretch of the Paleo Challenge, I’m reminded of the Rumi poem “even if you have broken your vows 1000 times, come, yet again come”. To me this means I need to accept myself even when I falter and simply get right back on my path.

et cetera