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The Power of Giving

Helping others feels good. But this takes it to a whole new level. Cami Walker, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, followed the advice of a holistic health educator to give one gift a day for 29 days. Then she wrote a book about it – “29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life.” I just read about her and the book here.

It’s all about how the act of giving – “stepping outside of your own story long enough to make a connection with someone else,” as Cami puts it – has changed her attitude and consequently helped her cope with a difficult disease. She is more mobile and less dependent on pain medication now. And she credits it to the power of giving and positive emotions.

Pretty cool. But wait, there’s more. The article goes on to suggest that self-centered people have a higher risk of heart disease. OK, exaggerating.  More like it points out a correlation between the severity of one’s heart disease and the amount of time spent talking about oneself. Still, interesting. One obnoxious talk show host who speaks in third-person comes to mind. Tyra, taken a stress test lately?

That was negative. I’m going to go do a random act of kindness now to balance.

Cami’s 29 days has sparked a movement and a web site:  www.29gifts.org/. There’s also a store. That’s quite a lot to come out of just a few simple acts of kindness.

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A Head Start on Thanksgiving

I don’t really believe it, but Thanksgiving is next week. This holiday has completely snuck up on me. Thankfully I don’t have any major responsibilities for the day. In years past my sister Molly and I have volunteered to make macaroni and cheese, which my mother said, “we don’t need this year.” Probably because we double the recipe and take up valuable real estate in the oven. This stresses my mom out.

There’s only so much space in the oven and sooooo many things that need to be warm and ready all at the same time. Plus a giant bird. To actually get everything at the optimal temperate at once, and then to get everyone to sit down for dinner simultaneously is really a tremendous feat.

For all those facing a similar task next week, here are a few ways to get a head start on the day – 101 dishes that you can make in advance and even serve cold.

Mom, sign me up for one of these….

28. Toss cooked Israeli couscous with toasted pecans, orange zest and juice, chopped mint, cider vinegar and honey. Bake in an oiled dish or use as stuffing.

41. Toss chunks of sweet potato and 2-inch lengths of scallion with neutral or peanut oil. (Again, a little sesame oil helps.) Roast, turning as necessary, until nicely caramelized; drizzle with soy.

43. Toss chunks of butternut squash with butter and curry powder. Roast until half-tender, then stir in chunks of apple and some maple syrup. Cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until everything is nicely browned and tender.

50. Cook chopped onions in olive oil until soft. Add chopped spinach and a handful of raisins — maybe a little port, too — and cook until wilted and almost dry. Roasted pine nuts are good on top.

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Rules to Eat By

These days you can’t walk down the grocery store aisle without seeing a food product that’s touting some sort of nutritional benefit. Be it calcium-fortified waffles, Splenda with fiber, or a box of Froot Loops with the “smart choice” check mark – you have to ask yourself, Really? We’re inundated with crazy messages about food. It’s overwhelming!

That’s why Michael Pollan, writer and food advocate, wants to get back to our roots. Aside from marketing and the food pyramid, what guides our judgment of what’s healthy? Our cultural knowledge should keep us on track (i.e. the little things passed on from mom and dad or that we just learn in passing). Whether you realize it or not, we all have little rules that we eat by. These rules shape our understanding of food, nourishment and health. Pollan says: “…culture still has a lot to teach us about how to choose, prepare and eat food, and this popular wisdom is worth preserving — perhaps today more than ever, in this era of dazzling food science, supersize portions and widespread dietary confusion.”

So, he’s working on a book to keep our collective cultural knowledge of eating from slipping through the cracks. Pollan gathered thousands of personal rules about eating and calls it a “collection of genuinely useful and nutritionally sound examples of popular wisdom about eating.”

As a taste, the first 20 are published in the NYT’s magazine.

A few of my favorites….

“You don’t get fat on food you pray over.”

“Avoid snack foods that end with the “OH” sound in their names: Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho Hos, Etc.”

“It’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor.”

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What Do You Eat In A Week?

My work BFF, Jennifer sent me this link. Check out the photos of families from all over the world (The U.S., Mexico, Japan, Ecuador, Mali…) surrounded by the foods they eat in a week. You can imagine how this looks already, I’m sure: Americans with pizza and potato chips and people in Mali with, well, rice.

If you took a picture of all the food you ate in a given week, what would it look like?

There’s also a table that compares average income, life expectancy, food consumption and amount spent on healthcare among other things in each country. No big surprise here. America has the highest income and spends the most on healthcare (nearly double what Japan, France and the U.K. shell out). Funny thing is people live longer in Japan (#1), France (#2) and The U.K. (#3) than in the U.S. (#4). One thing we do have going for us is we smoke less. The U.S. came in #7 in tobacco consumption. The English take that one.

Interesting stuff.

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The Vanishing Youth Nutrient

In this article in Prevention magazine, Susan Allport looks at our typical diet in light of the seasonal eating habits of animals. Her conclusion: we’re storing up for a long, scarce winter.

But we don’t hibernate. And food is never really scarce. She explains… “The base of our food supply has shifted from leaves to seeds, and this simple change means our bodies are storing more fat, leading to obesity and all its associated diseases.”

Allport noticed that animals naturally went  for seed fats with Omega-6 when it was time to hiberate in the winter and plant fats (Omega-3s) for fuel when it was time to migrate or mate in the spring. The Omega-3s speeds up activity in cells, while Omega-6s get stored in the tissues for months when food is scarce.

Between spring and winter animals naturally get both fatty acids and they balance each other out. But for humans that’s hard to do these days. Our Western diet has more than doubled in Omega-6 and Omega-3s are MIA. Why? Corn, soy and vegetable oils (seed fats) are now in nearly everything, from the crackers made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, to the eggs of chickens on a soybean diet, to the steak from a cow that’s raised on corn. When our grandparents ate steak and eggs they naturally got at least a trace amount of the inflammation-blocking, blood-flowing benefits of Omega-3s passed along from an animal’s grass-fed diet and not nearly as much Omega-6, which promotes blood clotting and inflammation.

That’s why Allport calls Omega-3 the “vanishing youth nutrient” and links its absence in our modern diet to increased rates of heart disease, cancer, learning disabilities, bad moods and wrinkles.

The key is understanding how the opposing forces of Omega-3s and Omega-6s affect us and to pay attention to the balance in your own diet.

Here are Allport’s tips for achieving a better balance (excerpt from article):
Three ways to increasing Omega-3s in the diet:

  1. Eat More Greens
    Leafy greens, legumes, and potatoes have a better balance of omega-3s to omega- 6s than most seeds and grains. Omega-3s live in leaves as the omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Animals (like us) convert ALA into even more dynamic omega-3s: EPA and DHA. This conversion is somewhat inefficient, however, and that’s why the next steps are so important.
  2. Eat Healthier Meats
    Cows raised on grass produce meat, milk, and cheese with many more omega-3s than their corn-and soy-fed counterparts. Chickens fed a diet rich in flax and greens produce eggs that are as high in EPA and DHA as many species of fish. Some would argue that grass-fed meats are more expensive than grain-fed, but the former come without the very steep medical price tag of a diet high in omega-6s.
  3. Eat Fish
    Fish can also be a sustainable part of our new diet, as moderate fish consumption will be more effective when our diet has fewer omega-6s. Try to eat at least two meals of fish per week. Fish oil supplements can also help, as toddler Lisa’s mother found, though they’re not a long-term solution to this widespread nutritional deficiency.

10 Ways to Decrease Omega-6s:

  1. Replace processed cereal with cereal or oatmeal that contains flaxseed.
  2. Make your own salad dressing with a mix of canola and olive oil.
  3. Eat less fast food because it’s all very high in omega-6 seed oils.
  4. Look for potato chips that are fried in canola oil rather than cottonseed, soy, safflower, or sunflower oil.
  5. Substitute walnuts for other nuts when you can because they’re a seed that’s high in omega-3s.
  6. Make your own baked goods, replacing half the butter with canola oil.
  7. Check food labels to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils.
  8. Avoid omega supplements that contain both omega-3s and omega-6s. You’ll see these labeled with terms like Complete Omega.
  9. Choose grass-fed pork, chicken, beef, or bison whenever you can.
  10. Avoid farmed fish because they are often fed corn and soy.

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Food Politics

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Michael Pollan chimes in on the healthcare debate. Bringing attention to the elephant in the room, he says there’s a disconnect between two very related industries: food and healthcare. When three-quarters of heathcare spending goes to “preventable chronic disease” linked to diet, according to the Center for Disease Control, you’d think someone would connect the dots.

Right now there’s a lot contributing to the political hairball that is the food industry, but he says it may not always be that way, especially if the rules change on insurance companies. Without the option of dropping clients based on a “pre-existing condition,” there’s new incentive to prevent costly diseases and keep clients healthier. And as Pollan says, “Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.” It’s that shift that will get the ball rolling on food industry reform. And from there we can really start talking about solving our health care crisis.

Read the full NYT article.

For more from Pollan, check out his 2008 open letter to Obama about proposing a new post: Farmer in Chief.

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