Fake Health Food

You Can’t Trust Anyone

I generally think people have a responsibility to be conscientious consumers, and that part of being an adult is not being swayed too much by advertising.  But when it comes to nutrition, I feel like most people aren’t really equipped to make good decisions, because there simply aren’t enough authorities purveying accurate information!

The USDA certainly isn’t; Harvard’s school of nutrition recently slammed them (politely) for letting their close ties to the dairy lobby influence their MyPlate recommendations.  And you can’t exactly trust the food companies themselves; they have a little bit of a conflict of interest.  The internet isn’t really better–for every real food site, there are 3 for ridiculous things like the cookie diet or those stupid detoxes with lemon juice, cayenne, and maple syrup.

I work in marketing and I get it.  I usually get jazzed by effective advertising and annoyed by ads that are ineffective or poorly personalized to me.  But food advertising riles me up sometimes, because most people–even smart, rational adults who would never do this with other categories of consumer goods–are easily swayed by health claims in the absence of good information from trusted authorities.

Just Because It Says “Healthy” Doesn’t Mean It Is

Take, for example, this monstrosity I saw the other day:

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Kellogg’s Plus!  Antioxidants!  10% more Vitamin E and Zinc than regular granola bars!  And Omega-3s too!  Wow!  These must be very healthy!  I see all the time that antioxidants and Omega-3s are great for me!  And more Vitamin E and Zinc also sounds like more nutrition!  Plus, it says “plus!”–so it’s like regular granola bars plus extra health!

Except when you read the label, this product turns out to be complete garbage:

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You can see for yourself the number of unpronounceable ingredients.  But if that’s not enough for you…

It has eight kinds of sugar!  Sugar AND corn syrup AND fructose AND oligofructose AND cane syrup AND glycerin AND dextrose AND glycerol.

It has hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are definitely going to kill you.

Then you see that the only source of Omega-3s is flaxseed.  Whoops, flaxseeds only contribute ALA, which is not actually an Omega-3 at all.  ALA is a precursor that is converted into Omega-3s during digestion, but really inefficiently.  So the actual amount of Omega-3s you’d get from consuming this product is much less than the giant burst on the front of the package would lead you to believe.

It looks like the Vitamin E and antioxidant claims are derived from the inclusion of the mixed tocopherols.  Mixed tocopherols are fine (they’re just Vitamin E)–but the irony is that they didn’t add them for health; they added them because Vitamin E is a natural preservative and they needed to keep the rice crisp!  So two of the health claims boil down to, “includes preservatives!”

What’s the Point of This Product Anyway?

The other thing I can’t quite wrap my head around is why anyone thought we needed a substitute for the “chocolatey trail mix” that already exists.

Here’s a tip: trail mix was already perfect before we added the sorbitan monostearate.  It takes 5 seconds to make and already contains the antioxidant vitamin E (almonds are our third-best source of dietary vitamin E).  And you know what?  If you feel like flax seeds are gonna help, you can go ahead and throw some of them in too.

Bonus Recipe: Trail Mix

Nuts: Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, etc.

Dried fruits: Raisins, dried cranberries (unsweetened or sweetened with fruit juice) chopped dates and/or plums, unsweetened coconut flakes, dried bananas or pineapple (make them yourself in a dehydrator or buy them unsweetened)

Dark chocolate chips

Mix together and eat.

Wow–who knew you could achieve trail mix in the comfort of your own home without even buying polysorbate 60?

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Special-Treat Paleo Mustard Potato Salad

My nephew’s birthday was this week, and his mom served potato salad.  Oh, how I love potato salad!  I haven’t had it in ages because, honestly, I kind of forgot about it–it’s not in my regular rotation, so it’s not really top of mind.

But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be.  Potato salad is not the most nutrient-dense food in the entire universe, but it’s not bad for you either (when you make it yourself using peeled potatoes and paleo mayo).  Side note: while skinless potatoes are paleo, they’re still probably not appropriate to eat regularly if your goal is weight loss.

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Step 1: Make the Mayo.  

Lean In.  It’s honestly not that hard.  And your homemade version won’t have any of the preservatives or additives that grocery store mayos do.

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I used this receipe from Alton Brown, one of my favorite celebrity chefs.  There’s even a video at the link if you’re really nervous, but I promise it is so easy a caveman could do it (see what I did there?).  Important note: be sure to sub a paleo-safe oil–corn and safflower oil are both verboten.  I used olive oil and thought it turned out nice–the olive oil is an assertive flavor, but I like it, so I was fine with it.  (If you want a less assertive olive flavor, don’t use extra-virgin, or sub something fancy like avocado oil.)

Step Two: Everything Else

Ingredients:

  • About 2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 5 hard boiled eggs, chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced thinly
  • 1 small onion
  • 1/2 c. paleo mayonnaise (see the Alton Brown recipe above, made with olive oil)
  • 1/2 c. yellow mustard
  • Salt, pepper, dill to taste

Method:

Rinse your peeled and cubed potatoes well and put them in a saucepan filled with cold water.  Heat until the potatoes are still firm and just barely cooked through.  (I actually poured off the hot water and refilled with cold a few times during cooking.  It takes longer to cook the potatoes this way, but I like the texture better.  Plus, the cooling and reheating helps create resistant starch.)  Dump out the hot water and shock with cold water to stop the cooking process and get some resistant starch going (see below).

While your potatoes are cooking, dice your onion and let it sit in a cup of cold water until everything else is done.  (This gets rid of that bitter dragon onion breath effect that raw onions can have.  Thanks to the show Chopped for that tip.)

Dump everything together in a casserole dish and stir.

Bonus Side Benefit: Healthy Gut Flora!

Resistant starch is the other kind of fiber, the (until lately) unsung hero that helps keep our gut bacteria happy.

The key to getting the most resistant starch out of your potatoes is to cook and cool them, ideally multiple times (the law of diminishing returns does apply).  Resistant starch is created in the retrogradation process. Basically, when you cook potatoes, the amylose and amylopectin break down into component parts.  When you cool the potatoes, the components realign and reform in a more crystallized structure that is more resistant to digestion.  Since it is resistant to digestion, the resistant starch makes it out of the stomach and into the large intestine, where it is converted to butyrate.

Butyrate is food for good gut bacteria, which help keep everything in your body working smoothly.  Research has shown that butyrate could even be a potential treatment for metabolic syndrome, since it increases insulin sensitivity and reduces hunger–even through to your next meal.  (Among other health benefits.  Yet another reason why you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating butter, which gave the name to butyrate!)

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Plantains, Plantains, the Magical Fruit

Better Breakfast

A woman I love, let’s call her OD, recently asked me to help her make more-Paleo choices that could reduce her inflammation and arthritis pain without requiring serious life changes.  I told her to focus on replacing grains in her diet with non-grain starches like sweet potatoes and white rice, and replacing seed oils (like canola oil and other “vegetable” oils) with coconut oil and butter.  That seemed doable enough for her–except for breakfast.

OD and her husband are big fans of traditional breakfasts: oatmeal and pancakes are staples.  I suggested sweet potatoes as a replacement for oatmeal, and OD was on board–but her husband doesn’t like sweet potatoes.  So I investigated paleo pancakes.

As I’ve said before, I don’t make a lot of paleo substitutes for non-paleo foods, mostly because I don’t like them as much as the “real thing,” and because I think there are enough naturally paleo foods I like that I don’t feel like I need substitutes.  But I have a sweet tooth too, so I’ve done my fair share of paleo baking!  The normal flour substitutes in paleo recipes are almond flour and coconut flour.  They’re fine, and they serve a niche, but I find that they make baked goods too dense for my taste (besides, they’re relatively expensive, and almond flour is high in Omega-6, which makes it inappropriate for someone whose goal is to reduce inflammation).

First Attempt: Pumpkin

So when I was looking for pancake recipes for OD, I focused on recipes that didn’t rely solely on almond flour.  I tried Paleo Pumpkin Pancakes that used canned pumpkin and a little coconut flour (I forget where my original recipe came from, but it was similar to this one).  I thought the flavor was nice, but the texture was still a little dense for my taste.  They were a bigger hit with my husband and toddler than they were with me.

Second Attempt: Plantains

You guys…plantains!

I had never cooked with plantains before.  I had a vague idea that they were like bland bananas, and I think I had mofongo once at a restaurant.  But I didn’t really know how to pick a good one or what they were good for.

I’ve been hearing a lot about plantains recently because I’m really into gut bacteria these days.  (Gut bacteria are at the heart of basically everything health related.  I’m sure I will write more about this another time.)  Green plantains are high in resistant starch, which is food for good gut bacteria (it’s called “resistant” because it is resistant to digestion–our bodies don’t use it as food right away, which leaves it available for good bacteria to use as food instead).  I had already decided that I needed to make an effort to eat more green plantains when I stumbled across this pancake recipe from Paleo Mom.

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They were so good!  They were light and fluffy like regular pancakes, and they have no ingredients that I don’t feel great about consuming!  There’s no almond flour or coconut flour (which I consider to be “sometimes foods”), and there isn’t even any sweetener (most paleo baked goods use honey, maple syrup, or coconut nectar).  I kept feeling like I had to pinch myself, so good were they–flavor, texture, and healthiness were all right on.

Unfortunately, I got the stomach flu that night, so I never want to eat them again.  But I am going to use more plantains in my life now that I’ve had one runaway success—I think it might even be the secret ingredient that changes my mind about paleo baked goods!

Plantains 101

If you’re like I was a week ago–i.e., not totally up to speed with what plantains’ deal is exactly–here are the basics so you too can feel comfortable cooking with them for the first time:

How do I pick a plantain?

  • Green plantains are the highest in resistant starch and lowest in sugar, so they’re the healthiest.  They have a pretty neutral flavor, which some people compare to potatoes, but they still taste like bananas to me.
  • Yellow plantains are basically pointless.  If that’s all that’s available at your grocery store, leave them on your counter until they ripen.
  • Almost-Black plantains (yellow, covered almost entirely with black spots) are ripe.  These are sweet and banana-y.

How do I get them open??

  • Cut them in half crosswise, then again lengthwise, to make quarters.  Pry your thumb between the fruit and the peel.  It’s basically the same principle as opening an envelope.

What do I do with them now?

  • Plantain flour–if you have a dehydrator, dehydrate green plantain slices, then grind in a food processor to make a flour that you can substitute 1:1 for wheat flour in recipes (more on that here if you’re interested).
  • Plantain chips–I fried up thin slices of ripe plantain in coconut oil and topped with a little kosher salt.  They were great–the perfect combination of sweet and salty.
  • Mofongo–this is a Puerto Rican side that is often served with pork.
  • Ripe plantains can be grilled or boiled and mashed for a sweet side dish.  You can even eat them plain if you like them–they’re basically just less-sweet, more fibrous bananas.
  • There are all sorts of fancypants South American preparations you can read about on Wikipedia.  Let me know if you try something you think I should add to my repertoire!
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Dairy Elimination Challenge

Dairy is one of those paleo gray areas where you’re supposed to eliminate it for 30 days, then add it back in so you can see whether you’re sensitive to it and adjust your consumption accordingly.  Well, I really love dairy, so I never did that.

At Baby C’s 2-month checkup, we asked the doctor if there was anything we could do about her persistent stuffy nose.  The doctor said it might be an allergy to casein, the primary protein in cow milk, and suggested I cut out dairy for a month to see if Baby C’s symptoms improved.  I figured it was time I finally bit the bullet and entered the ring…for my DAIRY ELIMINATION CHALLENGE (you have to read it in an announcer’s voice).

Is Dairy Paleo?

Dairy is one of the most controversial topics in the ancestral health community.  The Paleo Diet ™ (Loren Cordain) excludes dairy because it is inflammatory, allergenic, and full of hormones.  Cordain also notes, as do all the vegans of my acquaintance (sigh), that milk is associated with certain cancers.

The Primal Blueprint ™ (Mark Sisson), which I generally prefer, is more nuanced.  Sisson points out that the cancer associations are only true of skim milk, and that dairy fat actually appears to be protective against certain cancers.  The biggest issues with dairy are the lactose and casein, among people who are sensitive to them, and the fact that dairy is highly insulinogenic (a point of agreement with Cordain).

What About Calcium?

Dairy is an excellent source of calcium, so it feels a little scary to give it up completely.  But I’m not worried, because the paleo diet is great for bone health:

  • Gluten perforates the gut, impairing calcium absorption.  I don’t eat gluten, so the calcium I do eat is better absorbed by my body.
  • Meat-based diets both lower bone resorption and and increase bone formation–a one-two punch for bone health!
  • I get plenty of dietary calcium from bone broth, wild salmon, and broccoli, which are staples in my diet.

I recommend this article if you have questions about calcium deficiency on the paleo diet.

You Never Know Until You Try

I’ve always been a heavy user of dairy.  During my first pregnancy (pre-paleo), I was drinking two gallons a week of skim milk!  (Naturally, I switched to whole when I went paleo–and I now passionately agree with Ron Swanson that skim milk is just water lying about being milk.)  I never noticed any problems I attributed to dairy, but I was open to the possibility that I’d learn something.  After all, I never thought I was sensitive to grains until I cut them out and realized that knee pain, bad skin, and unstable energy levels weren’t normal.

The First Two Weeks Were Twice as Long as the Last Four Weeks

It was really hard at first.  I had to cook my eggs in olive oil instead of butter—which, let’s face it, is substantially less delicious.  I tried coconut milk in my coffee, but the texture was weird and the flavor too strong.  I switched to almond milk, which was pretty good, but I worried about the Omega-6s—so I ultimately switched to black (which was not as bad as I expected).

My 30-day dairy elimination challenge ended up being a 45-day dairy elimination challenge because Baby C got sick again on day 28.  Since her principal symptom that could potentially be dairy-related was a stuffy nose, I had to wait until her cold was gone before I could test whether dairy caused her problems.

The good news is that change is really only hard at first.  After a while, I just got used to it.  It was just like giving up grains–it’s a big life change at first, but once you figure out ways around the role a food group plays in your life, it’s no big deal to keep going.  In my case, I had the added benefit of being able to tell myself that I was in this as much for Baby C as for myself.

Test One: Lactose

Lactose intolerance is widespread around the globe (65% of humans!).  Most adults stop producing sufficient lactase, which is required to digest lactose, after infancy.  However, people of Northern European ancestry, like me, often have the lactase persistence gene—which means we keep producing enough lactase all our lives to enjoy milk.

The lactose-sensitive experience rumbling guts, diarrhea, cramps, and bloating.

My hypothesis was that I would have no problem with lactose.

Test Two: Casein

Casein is a protein that’s structurally similar to gluten.  Some people are allergic to it and experience autoimmune-type symptoms and perforated intestinal linings, just like with gluten.

Since I know I am sensitive to gluten, my hypothesis was that I might notice some sort of inflammatory impact, probably in my joints.

Worst-Case Scenario

The good news is that cream and butter (especially clarified butter, or ghee) have almost no lactose or casein, and can therefore be enjoyed by most people with no problem.  

Since the worst-case scenario still allows me the most delicious forms of dairy, let’s proceed.

The Results

On my first day back on dairy, I had organic whole milk (supplemented with fish oil)* in my coffee and Kerrygold grass-fed butter on my eggs.  Around lunchtime, I felt so bad that I had to lie down for the rest of my toddler’s naptime.  Uh oh, could I be lactose intolerant?  I had the rumbling, the cramps, and the bloating–and pretty bad digestive discomfort, although, thank God, I was spared the diarrhea.

For the next few days, I didn’t have any milk, but just ate plenty of butter and put half-and-half in my coffee.  I made a custard with cream and half-and-half and ate a lot of it.  No symptoms worth writing home about.

Friday morning, I had a breakfast meeting during which I enjoyed three big (decaf) cups of coffee with an approximation of whole milk (a little 2%, a little half-and-half), because that’s what was available.  Again with the cramps and bloating!  And this time with bonus super-smelly farts.

Today, I have only had half-and-half.  A little bloating.

*Funny story about that: During my dairy elimination challenge, I read a ton about dairy, and I decided it was a category worth prioritizing when I consider what to “trade up” for in terms of quality.  I made the switch to this new kind of milk for my toddler during the time I wasn’t drinking any.  So about a month went by before I had any.  When I finally did have some, I realized it tastes terrible!! Fish oil is really healthy, but it does not taste good in milk, in this observer’s opinion.  Sorry, Baby A!

A Note about Acclimation

The discomfort I felt on Day 1 of reintroduction was by far the worst.  Subsequently, I still felt bad when drinking milk, but it didn’t knock me flat.

This is good and bad.  It’s great that my body is so smart–it knows how to minimize discomfort caused by stuff I shouldn’t be consuming.  But it’s also a little bit bad that my body is so great at acclimatizing to bad things–because it means that the signals I get about how important it is to avoid certain foods get somewhat muted over time.

This is why elimination challenges are so powerful.  Just because you are currently tolerating something fine does not necessarily mean it’s optimal for your body.  It might just be that your body has learned ways to minimize the symptoms, even while the foods are still causing damage.

So What’s Next?

Butter and I are still deeply in love, so I feel very fortunate that it doesn’t appear to cause me any problems.  I will continue to use butter, but I’m going to experiment with clarifying it at home.  Not only does it remove the lactose and casein, but clarifying butter also makes it a better cooking fat by increasing the temperature at which it will burn.

Milk and I are breaking up, but remaining on civil terms.  My desire to consume it is very low now that I know how it makes me feel.  This is not to say I will never drink milk again–in fact, I’m sure I will–but I am going to make different choices when it’s easy.  Notably, my whole milk lattes will become breve lattes, because my reaction to half-and-half is very tolerable, whereas my reaction to milk is pretty uncomfortable.  Besides, higher fat dairy tastes better anyway, so it hardly feels like a sacrifice.

I didn’t mention other dairy products before because I don’t consume them regularly.  I knew before my challenge that cream cheese makes me feel like my intestines are being turned inside out, so I wasn’t eating much of that anyway.  I do love a good fine cheese, but they’re so expensive I rarely buy them, and cheap cheese doesn’t do it for me.  But for my next extravagant cheese treat, I will probably choose goat cheese–it is less allergenic because it has a different form of casein that is closer to what is found in human breastmilk.

I may do a little more test-and-learn with other forms of dairy that I do consume infrequently.  Yogurt and kefir, since they’re fermented, contain lower levels of lactose and might not make me feel bad.  I may try cottage cheese too, because I like it–although it is mostly casein and low in good dairy fat, so I’m not optimistic.

But Enough About Me

So what about the baby?

She got sick on Day 2 of reintroduction.  Coincidence or causation??

I’m going to do a little more test-and-learn for her.  I would be ok with cutting out liquid dairy altogether now that I have learned to enjoy black coffee.  But I sure would like to eat butter.  So that’s going to be our next test.  The learning never stops in these parts.

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Quick & Easy Breakfast Ideas (without eggs)

Tragedy struck this week: we emptied our last egg carton on a Tuesday and wouldn’t have any shopping time until the weekend.  That means I had to come up with 4 eggless breakfasts–which, let’s just say, is more thinking than I’m used to doing before I’ve had my coffee.  Fortunately, the world did not end, although I’m pretty sure I did throw my hands up and exclaim, “catastrophe!” in my best French accent Wendesday morning when I saw the empty egg shelf.

The Easy Way Out: Leftovers.

You always have them–why not put them to good use?  Food is food–no one is going to smite you if you eat “dinner food” for breakfast.  You’ve probably had “brinner” (breakfast for dinner), the ultimate in Lazy Weeknight Meals (TM).  Think of this as “dreakfast.”  I had chili for breakfast on Wednesday and carnitas for breakfast on Thursday.

The Oatmeal Substitute: Sweet Potatoes with Pecans.

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This warm and hearty dish really hits the spot!  It was my breakfast this morning, and I had more for lunch as well.

Put 3 pierced sweet potatoes in the toaster oven for a little over an hour, until they’re nice and soft.  Remove them from the toaster to cool, and put in some pecans in their place (same temp).  Let the pecans toast while you scoop the cooked sweet potato guts out of their skins.  Add about 3 tbs of coconut oil.  This makes it more filling, a little sweeter, and lower in glycemic load; plus, you need fat in order to absorb the beta carotene.

Stir it all up and put it in a tupperware to eat the next morning.  It tastes like pie.  You could easily substitute other favorite oatmeal toppings as well.

The Cereal Substitute: Bowls Full of Stuff.

Back in my pre-paleo days, I ate two bowls of cereal every day because cereal is engineered to taste amazing and does not disappoint.  I don’t eat cereal now (for many reasons, including) because it is a pretty worthless breakfast–I’m hungry again two hours after I eat a bowl.  So I don’t miss it that much.  But I do still really like how it feels to sit down to a big bowl full of sameness and chow down.

When they’re in season, you can’t do better than a bowl full of pomegranate seeds.  In this observer’s opinion, that is the perfect cereal substitute, because it’s crunchy and juicy and sweet and amazing!  (Albeit not that satiating…just like cereal.)

I have also been known to make my own muesli/granola sort of thing, using unsalted nuts (usually pecans, because they’re my favorite, but sometimes slivered almonds or both) and whatever dried fruit I have around (raisins, dates, unsweetened shredded coconut).  If you like it sweeter, you could add a little honey–I guess it depends on the kind of dried fruit you’re using (I find that dates are sufficiently sweet for my taste).  If you plan ahead, you can even toast it all the night before in a jelly roll pan.  Then eat it with milk or over yogurt.

Homemade Sausage

Grocery store sausages are often more dense with additives than nutrients.  But it’s very easy to make your own!  For instance, I made these turkey apple sausage patties a few weeks ago–I fried up a big batch one night and ate them the rest of the week for breakfast (and sometimes lunch).  They were pretty good, especially considering that ground turkey has got to be the world’s least flavorful protein source.

Bacon!  Bacon!  Bacon!  BACON!!!!

(First of all, you should be buying high-quality bacon or making it yourself, because grocery store bacon is junk food.  However, I’ll be honest and say I don’t follow that advice yet.  I do, however, rinse my bacon before frying it, because it makes me feel like I’m getting some of the chemicals off, whether or not that’s true, and it reduces shrinkage.)

Personally, I don’t find bacon filling enough to be a breakfast on its own, but I really love it as a condiment!  One of my favorite anytime foods, which I have been known to eat for breakfast, is bacon and vegetables.  I microwave a bag of steam-in-bag frozen vegetables (my favorites are cauliflower and brussels sprouts) while I fry up some bacon.  Then I pour the veggies into a bowl, stir in some coconut oil to make it more filling and help me absorb the fat-soluble vitamins, and top with crumbled bacon.  Hint: it gets even more delicious if you top it with a poached egg–it’s like vegetable carbonara.

The Sweet Treat: Smoothies.

I don’t make smoothies a lot; you’ve probably heard that our bodies discount liquid calories, and that certainly rings true from my personal experience.  But if I’m in the mood for something sweet for breakfast, I’ve found that I can still get pretty full by making full-fat coconut milk the base of my smoothie.  Plus, if you’re trying to lose weight, you may be interested to know that coconut contains the kind of fat (medium-chain triglycerides) that is preferentially burned as fuel rather than stored for later.  I mix up a can of full-fat coconut milk with some frozen fruit.  Lots of people add vegetables too.  More power to you, if that’s your jam.  Coconut milk is really filling, so it’s easy to stop when you’re full; I usually get about three servings out of one can.

Nature’s Fast Food: Avocados

All you have to do is slice and go for a nutritious, filling breakfast!  You may have heard recently that a study found that avocados promote weight loss.  Even though that study was industry-funded, I believe it–when we eat foods that are incredibly satiating, we don’t need to eat as many calories to feel full.

Plus, avocados are very nutrient-dense.

The Old Standby: Bananas and Nut Butter

(Note: peanuts are a legume, not a nut, and are not paleo.  I eat peanut butter sometimes because I love it–but I definitely notice its impact on my gastro-intestinal system.  My advice to regular peanut butter eaters would be to eliminate it–and all legumes–for 30 days to give your intestinal lining a chance to heal.  Then add it back in and see how you feel.  Listen to your body in order to inform your personal choice as to whether the way it tastes outweighs the way it makes you feel.)

Nut butters like almond butter and cashew butter aren’t terrible for you in moderation (their biggest drawback is that they’re high in Omega-6s, which are pro-inflammatory and basically the opposite of Omega-3s).  And bananas are fine, especially if you eat them on the greener side, when they’re lower in sugar and higher in resistant starch.

Still, I wouldn’t make this a go-to breakfast if you can find other things you like–it’s not bad for you, but it’s not really that good for you either.

Paleo Baked Goods

There are also all sorts of baked goods out there–just google “paleo pancakes” or “paleo muffins” to get tons of recipes at your fingertips.  I don’t have a lot of expertise here, because I rarely make breakfast baked goods (I have eggs!).  But for any lifestyle to be sustainable, you’ve got to be able to eat what you like–and if what you really like is pancakes, then by all means, buy some almond or coconut flour and whip up some paleo pancakes so you don’t feel deprived.

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Anytime Foods: Chicken Liver Pâté

I sometimes eat mindlessly, especially late in the afternoon at work, but I generally try not to snack.  If I’m not hungry, I have no business eating–so I drink tea instead.  If I am hungry, I should eat real food that will nourish me and make me feel full–not foods that are engineered by extremely clever people (<–seriously, read that article; it’s amazing) to trick me into eating tons of empty calories via vanishing caloric density.  

So I don’t really have a category of recipes I think of as “snacks.”  Instead, I have some foods that I think of as “anytime foods.”  Pâté is a great example because I am as likely to eat it for breakfast as for a snack as with dinner.

Yes, This is Really a Post about Liver

Liver is great.  The visceral “ew” factor may take some getting used to, but liver is the most nutrient-dense food we can eat.  Like all meat, it’s a good source of protein.  But it packs a punch in other ways too:

  • It’s nature’s most concentrated source of vitamin A, which is important for eye health, cancer prevention, and healthy skin.
  • It is a complete source of B Vitamins, including Vitamin B12, which could be protective against heart disease and dementia, among other things.  (Here’s an interesting article on Vitamin B12 deficiency you should read if you don’t eat a lot of meat, or if you love a vegan.)
  • It is a good source of CoQ10, which most people associate with heart health, but which is also promising for Alzheimer’s and eye disease, among other things.
  • Liver is nature’s most potent source of choline, a nutrient that as many as 100 million Americans are deficient in!  It can prevent the development of fatty liver disease and can treat fatigue and insomnia. 

The Perfect Snack

Best of all, liver has an unidentified “anti-fatigue factor,” which makes it the perfect solution to “that 2:30 feeling.”  This anti-fatigue factor was measured in a (rather sad) study in 1951, where rats were put in a drum of cold water from which they could not escape.  The researchers measured how long they swam for until they gave up and drowned.  Rats who were fed a standard lab rat diet swam an average of 13.3 minutes before giving up.  Rats who were fed a lab rat diet fortified with extra B vitamins swam an average of 13.4 minutes before giving up; the B vitamins do not appear to have boosted their energy much.  But Rats who were fed a 90% lab rat diet and 10% powdered liver swam for over an hour before quitting–and 9 rats swam for over two hours before the experiment was stopped and the remaining rats were rescued! 

I hope to never need to swim for my life.  But I would certainly like to have 554% more energy to tackle my comparatively small challenges.

Whose Liver Should We Be Eating?  Are Fava Beans and Chianti Paleo?

It’s important that all your organ meat, including liver, come from the healthiest animals you can find.  That means you probably shouldn’t be eating grocery store liver, at least not regularly.  But if you have access to a co-op (like The Wedge in Minneapolis) or a trusted butcher (like Clancey’s Meats & Fish in Minneapolis) or a Farmer’s Market, then you should have access to liver from organic (good), grass-fed/pastured (best) animals–and any animal is fine.

Chicken liver has the mildest flavor, and it’s less expensive than duck liver, so it’s a great place to start.

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The Recipe

If you have 15 extra minutes, or if you’re not sold on the idea of liver generally, make the original recipe on Healthy Foodie’s site.  If you already like liver or are ok with trading off quality for time, here is my slightly dumbed-down version: 

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb. chicken livers, with any white connective tissue removed (the butcher can do this for you).  Soak them overnight in water with a little lemon juice to make the flavor even milder if you’re a liver newbie.
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 apple, cored and chopped (you can peel it too for a silkier texture, but I didn’t bother.  I used a Gala apple.  I might do two apples next time to make it a little sweeter, but it wasgood like this too).
  • Salt & pepper to taste (I’ll be honest, I forgot to add these and I still loved the output)
  • Nutmeg, 1 hearty dash
  • 1/6 c coconut milk, full-fat of course (I just used a generous rubber-scraper full.  Again, youcould use more if you are not sold on liver) 
  • 2 tbs coconut oil

Method:

Melt your coconut oil in a frying pan and add your onions.  Cook about 10 minutes, until onions are starting to get translucent.  Add apples.  Add livers and cook a few minutes each side, until they’re brown on the outside but still pink on the inside. 

Pour into the bowl of a food processor.  Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and coconut milk.  Processuntil smooth.

Optional:

If you like a creamier texture, you can strain through a fine mesh seive.  This will be a pain if you didn’t peel your apple first.  You can also add more coconut milk to achieve a creamier texture with less work.

Bon Appétit!

Serve with apples or crudités.  Eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, because liver is an anytime food.

Word of Caution

While you should be eating liver regularly, you probably shouldn’t have it more than twice a week.  Remember how liver is nature’s most potent source of Vitamin A?  Well, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  If you eat too much, you can get a headache that doesn’t mess around (it feels like the kind of headache you get from caffeine withdrawal)…and yes, I learned this the hard way, because this pâté was so delicious, I ate almost all of it in 3 days.  Next time, I will freeze half of it right away so I am not tempted.

(But on the plus side, isn’t it sort of magical that your body has built-in mechanisms for letting you know what and how much you should be eating?  I continuously marvel at what we are capable of.)

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What’s For Breakfast? Eggs!

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There are lots of paleo breakfast options.  But I’ll be honest: I pretty much just eat eggs.

E is for Egg, That’s Good Enough for Me

I saw a question recently on a paleo message board: “Is it ok to have 2 eggs for breakfast every day?”  To my delight, almost all the answers were things like, “No, you should be eating at least 3.”

I eat 3 eggs, over-easy, almost every morning.  I usually cook them in butter, but sometimes I mix it up with olive oil, duck fat (I render it off duck breasts and strain it through a cheesecloth into a jar–delicious and basically free, if you’re already going to buy the duck), bacon fat, or coconut oil.  It takes exactly as long for my eggs to cook as it does for my coffee to brew–which in my opinion, makes it the perfect breakfast for a workday.  I don’t have to think about it, it only takes a few minutes, and it keeps me full all morning.

I love over-easy eggs, because I think warm, runny egg yolks are among the most delicious things on earth (and yes, you should eat the yolks).  Plus, eggs are a super-food, especially if you get pastured eggs (or at least organic or Omega-3 eggs).  Eggs are definitely a food worth prioritizing when considering what to trade up in food quality…although I personally don’t, because my family’s egg consumption is 3 dozen a week, so Costco is going to do it for me for now.

Mixing it up, Gordon Ramsay-style

I never get sick of over-easy eggs.  But I do occasionally eat them scrambled, especially if I’m sharing them with my toddler (scrambled eggs with butter is her favorite breakfast–like mother, like daughter).  I really like Gordan Ramsay’s method for cooking scrambled eggs.  (Obviously, omit the toast.  I don’t do the creme fraiche either, and it’s still great.)

Eat Your Vegetables…with Eggs!

I also really love this quiche recipe from one of my favorite sites, PaleoLeap.com.  You can make it with whatever vegetables you have lying around.  I often make it with canned spinach, canned tomatoes, and garlic and eat it as a Lazy Weeknight Meal (TM).  (Just be sure to grease up your baking dish really well, because if you forget to add cooking fat, it’s a pain to clean.)

Actually, you should check out all the egg recipes from Paleo Leap. That author, Sebastien Noel, has literally never led me astray–all of his recipes that I’ve tried have been great (not just the egg ones).

Egg Alternatives

If you don’t believe that dietary cholesterol does not predict mortality or just need more variety in your breakfasts than I do, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck.  There are plenty of paleo breakfast options beyond eggs, which I will write about another time.

Like bacon!

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Lazy Weeknight Meals: Salmon Cakes over Mixed Greens

ImageI don’t usually try to cook things without working off a recipe as a starting point, but I’ve made meatloaf so many times that I figured I could give salmon cakes a try.  And, not to toot my own horn, but TOOT!  They were amazing!

I just eyeballed the ingredients, so I’ll give you rough measurements.  What you’re going for is a patty that holds together but is still pretty wet.  Same basic concept as meatloaf, maybe a little looser.  For me, this made 7 cakes, which is enough for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow.

Make the Salmon Cakes:

Ingredients:

  • 2 cans wild Alaskan salmon (I used boneless/skinless, but you can get the kind with the bones and mix it all up in a food processor for extra calcium.  I’m serious, that’s a very paleo thing to do.  But I get boneless/skinless because eating the bones is just a little too hardcore for me.)
  • Dill–I used dried, about 1 1/2 tbs (my dill is a little stale; you might want to use less if yours is fresher)
  • Lemon juice–a couple big splashes…probably a little less than 1/8 cup
  • Celery, sliced thin–I used 2 ribs
  • Onions, sliced thin–I used up the rest of my green onions (4), but white onions would be fine if that’s what you have.
  • Minced garlic, to taste–I used about a tablespoon.
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
  • 2 eggs
  • Almond flour–just enough to make the patties stick together.  Don’t overdo it or it will be dry.  I probably used about 1/3 c.

Method:

Heat up some cooking fat in a skillet (I always use coconut oil for frying because it holds up so well and doesn’t oxidize at cooking temps).  Mix up all the ingredients above, and form the mixture into patties.  Put the patties in the hot oil–they should sizzle when you put them in.  Cook a few minutes each side, until you get a nice, delicious-looking brown color.

Salad Dressing:

Ingredients:

  • 2 parts olive oil
  • 1 part lemon juice
  • 1 part white balsamic vinegar (or white wine vinegar, or rice wine vinegar, or whatever kind of light vinegar you have)
  • A small squirt of honey
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  • Aromatics–I used something dubiously named “seafood seasoning” that I got at Target, but you can use whatever you like.  Dill would be good, or marjoram & oregano, or really whatever you like.

Method:

Stir vigorously with a fork.  Pour over mixed greens.  Top with salmon cakes.  Gobble, gobble, gobble.

Delicious and Nutritious

Canned wild Alaska salmon is pretty inexpensive, and it packs a big nutritional bang for your buck.  It’s really high in Omega-3s, which can prevent heart disease and mental illness, alleviate inflammatory conditions (acne, asthma, Crohn’s, psoriasis, arthritis, etc.), protect your skin from sun damage, and even inhibit cancer!  So yeah…it’s kind of a big deal.

Salmon also contains a compound called calcitonin, which is particularly good for joint health, as well as bioactive peptides that combat inflammation in the digestive tract and promote insulin effectiveness.

It’s important to get the wild Alaskan salmon.  East coast salmon is all farmed.  Not only is farmed salmon less environmentally sustainable, but it also has significantly higher rates of cancer-causing contaminants.  Plus, farmed salmon eat crazy stuff like soy, poultry litter (?!), and hydrolyzed chicken feathers!  Not to mention that farmed salmon is lower in Omega-3s, despite being 200% higher in fat.  Canned wild salmon is cheaper than farmed salmon filets, so there’s really no reason not to trade up to the healthier thing.

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Dessert for breakfast

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Why Should We Bother to Explore Other Breakfast Options when Lucky Charms is Already a Thing?

Pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, toast, muffins, donuts, bagels–it seems like all of breakfast is grain-based!

I consider a successful breakfast to be one that gives me enough energy to sustain my activities for the morning.  It keeps me feeling satisfied until lunch.  Let’s evaluate the success of grain-based breakfasts based on that metric.

Grains are Sugar

The glycemic load measures the extent to which a serving of a given food affects our blood sugar levels (as opposed to glycemic index, which compares foods by grams–I think GL is more meaningful, personally, but you get similar results with either measure).  Foods with a high glycemic load are broken down into sugar very quickly and give our bodies a sugar rush, which is followed by that sluggish “food coma” feeling when the insulin kicks in.

Here is a list of the glycemic loads per serving of some standard breakfast foods and junk foods:

  • Instant Oatmeal–30
  • White Bagel, plain–25
  • Vanilla Cake with frosting–24
  • Cornflakes–23
  • Orange Fanta–23
  • Cream of Wheat–22
  • Snickers–18

That’s right; as far as our pancreas is concerned, if we’re going to eat a bagel, we might as well be eating cake.

What about Whole Grains?

Whole grains do have lower glycemic loads.  But they also have a bunch of other bad stuff.

For instance, grains contain phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that binds to (or chelates) important vitamins and minerals, keeping them from being absorbed by your body.  By preventing vitamin and mineral absorption, the phytic acid in grains contributes to things like osteoporosis and tooth decay.  Since the majority of phytic acid is found in the germ, whole grains are higher in anti-nutrients than grains that have had the germ removed.  (In other words, white rice is less toxic than brown rice.)

They’re also high in lectins, which perforate the gut, causing unpleasant bathroom symptoms as well as systemic inflammation, which can exacerbate things like allergies, asthma, and arthritis, among other things.

And just because something says “whole-grain” on the package does not mean that it contains intact, whole grains.  The FDA allows food manufacturers to process grains into their bran, endosperm, and germ, and then remix them–and as long as they contain roughly the same mix as naturally occurs, they are allowed to call these highly processed foods “whole-grain.”

Recommended Reading

You know those peaks and valleys you feel in your energy levels?  How you eat a ton of food but then you’re starving an hour later?  Or how you have to graze or eat small snacks throughout the day to keep your energy levels up?  That’s because your body is addicted to glucose and isn’t adapted to burning fat for energy instead.

Here is a fun series of blog posts.  I enjoyed reading all of them and recommend that you give them a try too, but I have also summarized them for your convenience.

Part I: Why You’re Addicted to Bread

When we give our bodies lots of cheap and easy energy in the form of glucose, they lose the ability to burn fat instead.  Plus, sugar rushes feel good to our brains and bodies–but they feel less good as we get fatter, so we keep having to eat more and more sugar/carbs to keep up.

Part II: Adjacent to this Complete Breakfast (what an excellent headline)

All cereal, even cereal marketed as “healthy,” is just sugar.

Part III: The Myth of “Complex Carbohydrates”

It doesn’t matter how complex your carbohydrates are.  It matters whether you eat fat, because adding fat mutes the glycemic impact of your carbohydrates.  The butter is the healthiest part of your toast.

Fat FTW!

Most of us have adapted to burning glucose as our primary source of fuel, since it’s quick and easy for the body to use right away.  But actually, fat is our body’s preferred energy source!  Plus, it is more satiating than carbs, and it has a lower glycemic load (pretty much 0, actually); so when we regularly eat a diet with plenty of good fat, our energy levels are stable, and we never feel starving, even if it has been a few hours since our last meal or snack.

So What’s for Breakfast?

I began this post by sharing what I believe to be the point of breakfast: basically, keeping me full until lunch.  With a breakfast of sugar (bagels, toast, etc.), my blood sugar surges, then crashes, leaving me “starving” and hankering for my next fix in just an hour or two.  That fails my test of a successful breakfast.

So what passes?  Hang tight.  That’s coming soon.

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Lazy Weeknight Meals: Chicken Soup with Coconut-Curry Broth

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Lazy Weeknight Meals

I do most of my heavy-duty cooking on the weekends, and I rely heavily on my slow-cooker during the week.  But there are some times when I haven’t planned ahead and still need to come up with something for dinner.  Frozen pizza is out for obvious reasons.  For those nights, I rely on my stock of what I call Lazy Weeknight Meals.  These are meals that use only pantry staples (I have no time for shopping) and take less than 45 minutes start to finish (because that’s how much time I usually have after work before my husband and kids get home).

Pro-Health

I get sick a lot less often than I did before I went paleo, but I’m not immune to every bug the girls bring home from daycare.  I’m sick today with what feels like the plague: I can’t speak, my tonsils are the size of small watermelons, and my lungs are full of phlegm (which is a fun word to look at and Google the etymology of).

So naturally, I wanted soup.  Not only is soup an amazing comfort food, but it’s a good excuse to use up some of my homemade Cornish Hen stock, which has been taking up precious freezer room for too long now.  Bone broth (which is a kind of stock) is a paleo super-food, and it’s a great immune system boost.  (More proof your mom was right about everything: chicken soup really is good for colds.)

The Recipe

I adapted this recipe from this one at PaleOMG.com, simplifying it for use as a Lazy Weeknight Meal.

Ingredients:

4-pack of boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or whatever kind of chicken you have)

1 bag steam-in-bag stir-fry vegetables

A few handfuls of whatever green stuff you have in your fridge (I used a mix of baby kale, spinach, and chard because I got a little fancy at Costco last weekend; any green leafy thing you like would be fine. I bet canned or frozen spinach would work too)

1 can coconut milk (I used slightly less than 1 can because I had some leftover from a different recipe)

5 good shakes each garam masala and curry powder

2 good shakes powdered ginger

2 cups broth/stock (you can use any kind you like.  I used leftover bone broth from a cornish hen, but chicken or vegetable stock would also work fine.)

1 dash fish sauce (about 1 tsp)*

1 tbs soy sauce (not great), tamari (better–this is what I use), or coconut aminos (best) **

Paleo Cooking Fat (I used coconut oil)

Method:

In a big skillet, melt your coconut oil and cook your chicken until it’s mostly done (a few minutes each side). Remove from pan, cut into chunks, and return to pan.

Microwave your vegetables according to package instructions, then dump them in the pan.

Put everything else into the pan.

Simmer until flavors have melded and chicken is cooked through

Garnish with green onions if you find them at the bottom of your vegetable drawer, like I just did.

Footnotes:

*Yeah, I know, but I consider fish sauce to be a pantry staple because it’s in every Asian dish ever and it’s really umami, whatever that means.

**Soy sauce isn’t paleo.  Not only is soy probably the worst legume for your health, but modern soy sauce is made with half wheat, half soy–so it’s doubly not paleo!  Tamari sauce is supposed to be wheat-free soy sauce, but check the label for wheat anyway, since it’s not regulated.  It’s not paleo either, but it’s less bad for you than soy sauce and it’s regularly commercially available (I buy mine at Target).  Coconut aminos is the true paleo choice.  It’s essentially coconut sap.  You can buy it online.  My opinion is that you should use what you have, because 1 tbs of any of these isn’t going to kill you.

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