Wednesday
Jan252012

Sharing Menus

Mitt Romney meets Mike Pollan

The first goal of this blog was to share insights on healthy living, chiefly diet.  We distilled these insights from the oracles at hand: science, tradition, and scripture.   Our title is taken from the Word of Wisdom, a canonized scripture that Mormons are still learning to live.

Though scripture serves as our north star, our blog seeks a conversational tone that invites cooks of every persuasion.  Diversity is strength.  Which brings us to a current food article in the N. Y. Times, “Not Just for Sundays After Church”.  The article is about the evolving Mormon cuisine: “With Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the White House, Americans are newly curious about all the traditions of the [Mormon] church he has done so much to support.”

The article notes, “Healthy living was of great interest to the religion’s founders, and their dietary prescriptions of little meat, much produce and plenty of whole grains make them sound like proto-Pollans.”  And it’s true; Pollan’s excellent book, In Defense of Food, heavily influenced by science, also resonates with our understanding of a scripture-guided diet, in contrast to that crazy modern (MAD) diet the world has stumbled into.

The Last Word on Menus

The last three posts have invoked excellent comments on writing weekly menus.  You, who comment, besides sharing your ideas, also shape this blog.  I’ve gone back and analyzed the first 2000 comments on this blog.  It took me two days; two themes  resonated:

  1. Readers want practical recipes that follow our healthy-eating precepts.
  2. Readers want wholesome, affordable menus based on these recipes.

There’s a repeating theme in the comments.  Homemakers are concerned about the health of their family and they are tired of the pressure and poor outcome of “wingin’ it” at dinnertime.  There is a growing interest in menu writing but we need a better way to share ideas.

Please Comment

After some pondering, it seems we might move to a new format of three posts a week:

  • One post would feature the Healthy Change of the week, with supporting information. 
  • The second post would offer a suggested menu of three or four dinner meals, with recipe references. 
  • The third post (most weeks), would provide a recipe congruent with the Healthy Changes(s).  To reflect a broad spectrum of ideas, we would need readers to share menu ideas.  This could be done through our email address.

Please comment:  Is this a good way to go?  Is there a better way? And please excuse that we haven't posted this week's Healthy Change on better breakfasts.  It will follow in a day.

Photo from the N.Y Times

Monday
Jan232012

One Thousand and One Meals

One challenge for moms is to maintain comforting routine, while simultaneously making life interesting for the family.  Know what I mean?  A week ago I told of two women eating breakfast by the beach on a sunny morning.  Now we are in an old family home in a small town in the Rocky Mountains, enjoying the beauty of newly fallen snow.  Perhaps it's the change of environment, but this morning I awoke early with a story running through my head.  It was inspired, I think, by the challenge of menu writing.

The creativity of our readers’ menu writing enchants me.  Some assign themes to the nights of the week.   You alliterate:  meatless Monday, themed Tuesday, or watery (for fish) Wednesday.  Or you become Marco Polo, exploring the globe:  Chinese on Tuesday, Italian on Wednesday, etc.  Then there’s the kaleidoscope method where you turn to your library of cookbooks and randomly flip through the pages, seeking whatever excites. 

Menu writing reflects the cook’s dilemma:  Homes (and homemakers) do best with established routines, but routine is inherently boring.  So there’s this balancing act, the daily dance between comforting normalcy and stimulating variety.  It brings to mind the plight of Scheherazade.

Scheherazade, you may recall, was the story-telling Arabian princess in One Thousand and One Nights.  Her new husband, a Persian king once betrayed by an unfaithful queen, avoided an embarrassing repeat by executing each new queen the following day.

The clever Scheherazade survived by concocting bedtime stories that always included a preview of the next night’s tale.  The king, entertained and intrigued, daily spared her life.  Finally, after 1001 nights, he found life too boring without her creative efforts and made Scheherazade his permanent queen. 

Does anything about coming up with an enjoyable dinner, night after night, make you think of the clever and creative Scheherazade?  This litle story entry introduces tomorrow’s subject:  Breakfast.

Friday
Jan202012

More on Menus

The quick answer:  In your menu planning, homemade soups and casseroles provide both nutrition and value.

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Paula Deen and Southern Cooking

To spend time in the Deep South, especially the small towns, is to appreciate the colorful uniqueness of the people.  They’re good folks—hospitable, hard working, and mostly happy.   Their diet is unique: grits, sweet potato pie, and something fried.  If they serve you a steak, it’s supposed to overlap both sides of your plate.  They like BBQ from shacks in the woods that have never seen a health inspector.  My favorite treat was pecan pie. 

Life can be hard in the South.  You’ve heard the phrase attributed to Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”?  In one way it’s true, for the South has more than its share of strong people.  You’ve likely heard the phrase, “steel magnolias.”  There’s plenty of steel in celebrity chef Paula Deen, who overcome a difficult childhood to make millions as the unapologetic advocate of politically incorrect food. 

This week Deen revealed she’s been diabetic for three years, the likely result of a lifestyle that included little exercise and lots of sugary and deep-fried foods.  When the news of her secret came out there were immediate cries of “hypocrite”.  Deen can ignore her detractors, most, after all, are Yankees, and her sons aim to get rich with “light” versions of her recipes.

The controversy will die down but this question remains:  What if Paula Deen had spent 2011 living the 52 Healthy Changes?  Poor girl, she really missed out.  A slim and healthy Paula Deen would have been a hit when Dancing With The Stars came calling.

The Soup Aisle

A reader, Zane, commenting on menu writing, said soup was a staple in their family dietary.  Here’s a brief history of soup in America.

Homemade soups are enjoyed around the world; they’re economical, healthy, filling, and low in calories.  Americans got out of the soup habit and I blame it on the success of the Campbell Soup Company.  In the 20th century battle over the supermarket soup aisle, Campbell’s canned soups were the clear winner.  No contest.

But there was a big problem:  Though a labor-saver for the housewife, the usual attributes of soup—value, taste, and nutrition—were lost.  Soup consumption declined—canned soup just didn’t taste that good, even with all the added salt.  There was a revival when casserole recipes using canned soups became popular in the ‘50s but they didn’t taste all that good so this only turned a generation off on casseroles.  Casseroles, properly done, have the all virtues of homemade soup.

So one of the goals of this blog is to restore homemade soups to the American dietary.  They’re tasty, economical, low in calories, and can be used for several meals.  And if cooking, as others have said, is how you add love to ingredients, then these slow-cooking dishes are the stuff of sweet dreams.

Menus and Constancy of Purpose

In my work life, no person influenced me more than W. Edward Deming.  Deming, now deceased, was the statistical guru who taught the Japanese after WWII that they could be more successful making quality products than by just offering the cheapest goods.  He offered a system for efficiently improving quality based on what he called profound knowledge.  The Japanese, humbled by defeat, listened and as Japan Inc. prospered he became a revered figure. 

Our approach to this blog, Word of Wisdom Living, is influenced by Deming’s teachings.  We shun the ever-changing “exciting news of the day” broadcast by the media, which makes nutrition confusing for many.  Our policy is to focus on basics, apply them to the life of regular people, and steer a steady course.  We find the wisdom of traditional foods and olden ways more compelling that the latest study.

A primary Deming teaching was “constancy of purpose.”  Using an effective tool for a few weeks doesn’t make a big difference.  But there’s real power if it becomes a habit.  Nutrition is a perfect application for constancy of purpose.  Chronic disease develops slowly, over decades.  So good health requires doing the right thing over the long term.

New Years resolutions are good, but the big benefit lies in what you do all year long.  And this brings us back go this week’s Healthy Change of writing weekly menus.  Did you notice this was HC#13 last year?  We’ve moved it up to #3 position for good reason—a menu provides constancy of purpose!   When you write a menu, you focus on healthful and economic ingredients such as lentils, legumes, and vegetables in season.  Plus, with planning, soups, stews, and casseroles become practical.

Please comment:  Share recipe tips, or your favorite soup or casserole recipe.

Monday
Jan162012

The Weekly Menu

The quick answer:  To improve health and happiness, write a weekly menu and shopping list.

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I’ve Never Been Happier

Two women, friends who had not seen each other for many years, sat down to a leisurely breakfast at a lovely restaurant overlooking the ocean.  It was a warm, sunny Saturday morning.  They admired the view, talked about the happenings in their separate lives, and caught up on shared friends.  I came late to the meal—was really only there to pick up the bill.  As they said their good-byes, the older lady said something I won’t soon forget:  “I’ve never been happier in my life than I am now.” 

Why is her statement so memorable?  She is dying—painfully—of cancer. 

She had previously sold the home where she and her deceased, husband reared their children, packed what she could fit into a few suitcases, and come to live by the beach.  Her apartment is small and simply furnished, plain enough to suit Thoreau, though it does have a lovely view of Catalina Island.  Her plan, it seems to me, is to sit by the sea in the warmth of the sun, compose music (her avocation), and await her passing. 

So I’ve thought about her words, and how we can find joy through living in harmony with our truest values.  There's a hint here, I think, about changes all of us might consider.  It requires that we listen more to the voices within.

The Voices Without

Food Inc. spends over $30 billions annually to get us to buy their food-like concoctions.  Why do they spend so much?  Because it works.  Humans, the researchers say, fuss over the infrequent decisions in their lives, like what car to buy.  But we tend to outsource the simple, daily decisions, like what to eat, to the culture around us.  We just find it easier to go with the flow. 

A century ago, in 1911, a food that people had used forever, lard, was driven from the market by a massive well-organized advertising campaign.  The campaign promoted Crisco as the modern replacement and suggested that those who resisted weren’t “progressive.”  It was a very successful campaign.  Crisco turned out to be a terrible mistake, but it would take a century to assemble the proof and convince the public. 

Food companies didn’t miss the lesson of Crisco's market launch:  You could sell almost anything with a skillfully done advertising campaign.  This seems arrogant, but we know from sad experience that it works.  Imitation food products continued to replace traditional foods all through the 20th century.  Clever advertising created a new food culture:  the modern American diet (MAD). 

One purpose of our 52 Healthy Changes is to restore real food to the American dietary.  We must tune out the siren song from the billions spent on advertising and quietly rediscover olden ways.  To regain conscious control of our daily food decisions we turn to the simplest of tools—the weekly menu. 

Weekly Menus

Few people write regular menus.  A basic menu, covering four or five dinners, plus, perhaps, Sunday supper will simplify your life.  The few minutes it takes to write a weekly menu will free you from the frantic scramble to come up with something for dinner.  If you use a menu, you’ll throw out less spoiled food.  If you make a shopping list part of your menu plan, you’ll reduce shopping trips, saving time and money.  If you save old menus and organize them in a binder by season, your life will be even simpler next year.

The popular blog Inchmark is written by our daughter Brooke.  Brooke wrote a great post on grocery lists and provided an editable menu planner and grocery list.

Five Steps for Menu Writing

Here are five steps that work for us in menu planning:

  1. Set aside a regular time for menu writing.  Consult the family the night before to get their requests.  Involving them in planning builds family support for the outcome. 
  2. Check your inventory.  We look in the refrigerator for food that might spoil, in the freezer to see what needs turnover, and in the pantry for ideas.
  3. Write down your meal ideas with links to recipes. 
  4. Review the menu for needed ingredients and write a shopping list.  In our best weeks, using a menu-driven shopping list, we only need to shop twice.
  5. Share the menu with the family and save it in a binder.  Keep a blank menu in the binder as a place to collect ideas for next week. 

In the first two weeks the Healthy Changes were aimed at reducing sugar intake and eliminating hydrogenated trans fats.  This week’s Healthy Change is designed to protect you from impulse buying and the hassle of last minute shopping. 

Please comment:  How do you write healthy menus and simply grocery shopping?

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

Saturday
Jan072012

The Big Fat Lies

The Truth About Fats

The quick answer:  No food group is more incorrectly understood by the public than fat.  For best health, avoid refined (especially hydrogenated) oils, in favor of traditional fats (olive oil, butter, lard, etc.).

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The 2nd Deadly Trend

Last week we focused on the 1st of seven deadly changes to our food—the rise of sugar from an occasional treat to America’s biggest source of calories.  Sugar is the #1 additive in processed foods.

This week we discuss the 2nd deadly change:  factory fats, beginning with vegetable oil hydrogenation.  To explain, here are seven common hydrogenation and trans fat facts:

  1. Why were refined oils (corn oil, soybean oil, etc.) hydrogenated?  Hydrogenation extends shelf life.  An unnaturally long shelf life is good for the food business but generally bad for our health.
  2. What causes short shelf life?  Omega-3 oils—the ones needed for brain, eye, and nerve health, as well as fertility—after being processed, are highly reactive to oxygen.  When oxidized these oils become rancid which spoils taste. 
  3. How do you hydrogenate refined oil?  The oils are heated and passed through a reaction chamber where they are exposed to hydrogen gas in the presence of a metallic catalyst.  The hydrogen saturates the carbon atoms that form the backbone of the oil molecule.  This thickens the oil and makes it much less reactive to oxygen, but also forms toxic trans fats.
  4. How bad are trans fats?  They’re deadly.  The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) is our leading academic center for nutrition.   In 1994, Dr. Willett and others from HSPH published a paper in the American Journal of Public Health showing that trans fats cause between 30,000 and 100,000 deaths every year in the US.  Trans fats are a risk factor for inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. 
  5. How did trans fats get into our diet?  The first hydrogenated fat product was Crisco, introduced a century ago in 1911.  Crisco was followed by margarine as a butter substitute during WWI.  Vegetable oils, introduced later, were partially hydrogenated.  Because processed foods depend on vegetable oils for mouth feel and taste, most processed foods contained trans fats.
  6. Are trans fats still allowed in food?  Yes.  As the public has become more informed about the toxicity of trans fats, the use of hydrogenation has declined, but Congress has not banned trans fats, though labeling was required in 2006.  Denmark effectively banned trans fats in food in 2003, followed by Switzerland in 2008.   New York and a few other cities restrict the use of trans fats by restaurants.
  7. Why do some processed foods claim “zero trans fats” but have hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list?  Our federal government wrongly allows foods that contain less than 0.5 gram per serving to be labeled “zero trans fats.”   This is shocking because the prestigious Institute of Medicine recommends we eat absolutely no trans fats.

The Power of A Woman

Dr. Mary Enig of the University of Maryland was the first to publicly warn of the toxic nature of trans fats.  She also argued that trans fats were a cause of inflammation and heart disease.  This claim was controversial as the public had been told saturated fat and cholesterol was the main cause.  Enig pointed out that man had eaten saturated fats long before the rise of heart disease.  She further noted that trans fat intake increased in step with heart disease while saturated fat intake actually declined as a percent of calories.

Dr. Enig took a lot of flak from the food industry but stood her ground—time has shown her to be right.  For a better understanding of which fats are healthy, read her excellent book, Know Your Fats.

Dr Fred Kummerow, Enig’s colleague at the U. of Maryland, is also a feisty opponent of trans fats.  In 2009, at the age of 94, he submitted a 3000-word petition to the FDA that began, “I request to ban trans fats from the American diet.”  He publicly commented, “Everybody should read my petition because it will scare the hell out of them.”  I called Dr. Kummerow this morning to see if the FDA had responded to his petition—as required within 180 days.  I’ll share his response when it comes.

Deep Fat Frying

Deep fat frying is the ultimate test of cooking oil, as the oil sits for days at high temperatures, exposed to oxygen.  In the past tallow was successfully used (thus the great taste of the early McDonald’s fries).  When the public was falsely taught that saturated fats like tallow were unhealthy, the food industry converted to hydrogenated vegetable oils.  Unfortunately, because of the trans fats, this was far unhealthier.  Tragedies like this keep happening with Food Inc.

Deep fat frying thus remains the last major use of hydrogenated oils.  To my knowledge, only In-N-Out has stopped, but problematic oxidation of fats from extended use at high temperature remains.  I suspect the very last refuge for hydrogenated oil use will be the mom-and-pop donut shop. 

The 2nd Healthy Change protects from toxic trans fats and other unhealthy stuff found in deep fat fryers:

This means no French fries, no donuts, no onion rings, no corn dogs, not even the toxic deep fried Twinkies or Snickers Bars at the county fair.  Please note this does not eliminate deep fat frying for the home cook, using fresh and healthy oils.  Better yet, check our recipe, for Oven-Roasted Fries.  The recipe works with sweet potatoes or yams also.

In 13 weeks we’ll return to the subject of fats, discuss the importance of balancing omega-6 and omega-3 in the diet, and recommend the use of traditional fats over refined vegetable oils. 

Pease comment:  Share your experience with trans fats, or your recipe for home fried vegetables.

Tuesday
Jan032012

the bitter truth

The quick answer:  Sugary drinks, with either real or artificial sugars, are a leading cause of chronic disease and premature death.  Pure water is the healthiest drink and a big step towards simplifying your life. 

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Allied With Angels

The 20th century was a dietary disaster.  Food had remained essentially unchanged through the six millennia of recorded history.  Then, in one century, the industrial revolution reinvented what God had created.  We call what resulted the modern American diet (MAD).  MAD caused the rise of chronic disease (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc.).  The food reformation’s goal is to recover the goodness of natural food, taking advantage of modern methods, and prevent chronic disease. 

If you read this blog, benefit from the Healthy Changes, and invite your friends and neighbors to join—you are a soldier in the food reformation.  In this battle, you’re on the side of the angels.

Seven Deadly Trends

The industrialization of food can be seen in seven trends.  We’ll visit these trends in the coming weeks.  Trend #1 is the growth of sugar from an occasional treat to the main source of calories in the modern diet. 

In the early 1800s sugar was a rare treat; most sweeteners were natural, local, and seasonal—honey in the summer, maple syrup in the winter.  You couldn’t overdose on honey; first, because the bees made a fixed amount, and second, because honey is less addictive than sugar.  The experts estimate sugar consumption from all sources (honey, maple syrup, molasses, and refined sugar) in that time at 10 lbs. per year, or a couple of teaspoons daily. 

Our sugar consumption today, based on USDA data, exceeds 100 pounds annually.  This is a ten-fold increase from the early 1800s, and five times what the AHA recommends (6 tsp daily for women; 9 for men).  If your sugar intake is average, you get about 25% of your calories from some form of sugar.  There’s something terribly wrong when refined sugar is the leading source of calories. 

Two Heroes

John Yudkin, PhD, MD (1910-1995), was the first to connect sugar to the modern diseases.  In the ‘50s he studied the link between sugar, type 2 diabetes, and coronary heart disease.  (If we had followed Yudkin we wouldn’t have wasted a generation trying to solve heart disease by reducing cholesterol.)  Yudkin wrote a famous book, published 1972 in England as Pure, White and Deadly, and in the U.S. as Sweet and Dangerous, that remains a classic.  Dr. Yudkins is a nutrition hero.

Robert Lustig, PhD, is a UCSF professor and obesity researcher who warns about the danger of refined sugar, especially fructose.  For an explanation, see his YouTube video, Sugar: The Bitter Truth.  Talking about the fructose naturally present in fruits, Dr. Lustig closes with a comment I never expected to hear from a UC professor:  “When God makes a poison (meaning fructose) He wraps it in the antidote.”  Skip the soda drinks; eat apples.

Good Calories, Bad Calories

The essential dietary change is to slash sugar intake to below the AHA goal of 6 tsp (25 grams) daily for women and 9 tsp for men.  For the average American, this is an 80% reduction!  Your blood sugar and insulin levels will decline as you do this, excess fat will slowly disappear, and real food (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts) will begin to taste better.  (Natural food has a hard time competing with food that’s more like candy.) 

Gary Taubes wrote a detailed book on the health problems linked to America’s excessive sugar intake.  The book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, carefully examines the role of sugar in overweight and obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, infertility, and aging.  It’s a scary book.  If you need motivation to curtail your sugar intake you should read it or others, such as:

  • Suicide by Sugar by Nancy Appleton.
  • Sugar Nation, The Hidden Truth Behind America’s Deadliest Habit and the Simple Way to Beat it, by Jeff O’Connell
  • The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now!, by Dr. Mark Hyman.
  • Sugar Blues, by William Duffy.

Sugary Drinks

Soft drinks are the #1 source of sugar for most of us, so this should be the first place to cut back.  There’s a hidden secret behind the limit of one 12 oz. soda per week—it’s hard at first but over time you’ll lose the taste and begin to skip weeks. At some point you may say, "My addiction is cured; I can live without sugary factory drinks."

Non-sugar Sugar?

Artificially sweetened drinks are defined as sugary so also come under this rule.  Do you buy diet drinks in the mistaken belief it’s healthier than regular soda?  Society made a foolish mistake when we assumed that food scientists could invent a new molecule that would be intensely sweet but not have the ill effects of sugar.  The bitter truth is artificial sweeteners seem to reinforce the infantile sugar craving in an addictive way, while adding new problems.  See this post for more on the dangers of sugar substitutes.

What to Drink?

When banning an unhealthy product, our policy is to offer a healthy replacement.  So what to drink?  Water!  Drink lots of water.  There is no healthier drink that water!  (We use a Brita charcoal filter on our water.)  Eight glasses daily is a common recommendation.  Here’s a good test of your water intake:  Fill a pitcher with eight cups of water and drink from it for one day.  Measure what’s left at the end of the day.  You’ll find it’s hard to drink the recommended eight glasses but you’ll do better with this pitcher method because of the daily feedback.

Occasionally we get bored and seek variety, something besides water.  A drink flavored with real fruit, even a slice of lime or lemon, makes a nice change.  One flavored drink a day seems enough for our family.  Green smoothies are good too.

Please comment on your experience cutting back on sugar drinks, including artificially sweetened diet drinks.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

Monday
Jan022012

A New Year, A New Light

A Call for Help

It was a good year, 2011.  Before New Years, the beautiful wife and I traveled to San Francisco for the 34th annual holiday dinner sponsored by my fancy sister.  She might object to the term "fancy," but I make my case with this picture of her Christmas tree.  Do you think 4200 lights a bit much?  My sister doesn't.

After 34 dinners, it has become more than a tradition.  Though the main topic is resolutions—reporting on last year's resolutions, and sharing next years—it's more a validation of our family.  We're far from perfect, but we're immeasureably better for having shared our walk through life with each other.  So most years the beautiful wife and I drive 14 hours, round trip, simply to share a family dinner. 

When it came time to make new resolutions, my goal to double the Word of Wisdom Living audience in 2012 was challenged.  “You should grow ten-fold,” they countered.  So that’s our goal.  If we make it, we promise to continue for a 3rd year.  We need your help—we've invited all our friends, and a few strangers.  So we’re asking you to spread the word and expand our audience—in December we averaged about 250 readers daily, so our new goal is 2500 per day.  

Please become a partner in the food reformation.  Make a difference by commiting to bring 10 friends or associates to Word of Wisdom Living, beginning right now. Each month I'll report on our progress. (One easy way to spread the word is to share our new Facebook page with your friends and family.)

Healthy Changes

The Healthy Changes are like resolutions, but better—they're done continuously, all year long, one each week.  I measured our family's performance on the 52 Healthy Changes in 2011.  Following the Healthy Changes has made a big difference in our health but we weren’t perfect—I put our compliance at 80%.  The hardest part was eating five vegetable servings daily.  So we square up our shoulders and resolve to do better in 2012.  If we do this for three yars, I think we shall have mastered it. 

Over the Holidays we worked on the 52 changes, keeping most, improving others, replacing a few.  We didn’t invent these changes—we sorted through the available literature and distilled the recommendations of doctors, scientists, and journalists into 52 topics.  It’s a good list, the fruit of 1000s of hours of study, but if you have health issues, follow your doctor’s counsel first.  And we're always open to suggestions for Healthy Changes.

We're making some improvements to this site too, watch for them over the coming weeks. (If you view this blog through a reader, you might want to click over to the actual site to see how things are changing.) We've thought a lot about how we can improve things and have come up with an ambitious list that includes small daily tips, web videos that expand on posts, and recipes that can make the Healthy Changes a little easier. We hope you'll stick around to see what we're working on and let us know if you have other ideas that would make this site better.

Measure Your Progress

Through 2012 we’ll collect the Healthy Changes into a list with the idea that you can grade yourself monthly as the list grows.  There’s a repeating seasonal pattern—each 13 weeks we cover the key themes of lifestyle and diet reform, each time building upon the prior changes.  The themes include eating less sugar, healthier fats, whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and less meat.  Other themes are more exercise, better kitchen organization (menus, shopping lists), cooking, and special topics.  Be patient: reforming one’s lifestyle in a year is an audacious project.

Worried that your life is already too complicated without adding 52 things?  The big blessing is the 52 Healthy Changes actually simplify your life.  Factory drinks like sodas are this week's subject.  Drinking water—which is essentially free—is simpler and more natural than constantly buying soda or other drinks.  When we get to factory-made convenience foods we'll make the same argument—home cooking done right is simpler and cheaper.  There's a deep thought here, one worthy of Thoreau:  Living more simply is the first step towards living more deeply.

Please Comment:  Share your thoughts on how we can advance the food reformation.  Whoever puts their shoulder to this worthy task becomes a light upon a hill. 

Wednesday
Dec282011

Healthy Winter Desserts

The quick answer:  In winter, when you crave an after-dinner sweet, make fruit the first ingredient.

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Next Year

We’re most grateful for all that has been accomplished in 2011.  In the next post we’ll discuss our  plans for 2012.  We started our conversation a year ago with three basic premises. 

  1. The modern American diet (MAD) is the primary cause of chronic disease (heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, etc.).
  2. Prevention of chronic disease by dietary reform is better than treatment.
  3. Dietary reform is too big a jump to do all at once, but could be substantially accomplished in a year of 52 weekly steps, called Healthy Changes.  

The three premises rested upon three hypotheses:

  1. Because the science of nutrition is impossibly complex and changes with time, we could balance science with two timeless oracles: food tradition and scripture.  This brings to mind the stability of the three-legged stool.
  2. Using these sources, an ordinary person given sufficient time could better define a healthy diet than any congress of conflicting and conflicted experts. 
  3. Because everyone is different, this diet could be improved though conversation with other concerned people.  Whoever reads this blog and comments, adds to that conversation.

The focus of this blog is prevention.  Only qualified doctors can diagnose illness and prescribe treatment; nothing in this blog should be considered medical advice.

The Sugar Addiction

Americans eat too much sugar, over 100 pounds each year.  So six of the 52 Healthy Changes combined to reduce our sugar intake to below the AHA target of 6 teaspoons daily for women (about 20 lbs./year) and 9 for men.  

Healthy Change #1 targeted the problem of excess sugar intake, by going after sugary drinks:  If you consume sodas or other sugary drinks, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week. 

Healthy Change #3 talked about breakfast cereals, but actually provided a rule for all processed foods:  Cereal products must be made of whole grains, and have more grams of natural fiber than grams of sugar.

Healthy Change #8 went after the bag of candy in your home:  Buy candy a piece at a time; never bring a box or bag of candy into the home.

Healthy Change #9 applied the “more sugar than fiber” rule to the bakery aisle:  Your daily bread must be whole grain, with more grams of fiber than added sugars.

Healthy Change #31 put the dagger into the diet drinks, which many mistakenly think are healthier than the sugar drinks:  If you consume diet drinks, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week.

Healthy Change #51 proposed that traditional spices and herbs replace sugar as our most popular flavoring agent.  This is the hallmark of a competent cook—to not rely on sugar to make food taste good.

The Easiest Thing

Did you notice this year how we haven’t had a single post on one of the healthiest food groups—fruit?  There’s a reason.  Fruits are so easy to eat they don’t need an eating rule.  They’re Nature’s candy—fruit is fun to eat so it usually is eaten before it spoils.  Not so with vegetables—if you don’t include them in your menu writing, they’ll go bad sitting in your refrigerator.

People enjoy candy during the Holidays.  Because we expected a lot of company, the beautiful wife bought a box of See’s candy (technically, a violation of Healthy Change #8).  Christmas passed without opening the box.  Later, overwhelmed by the noise of little grandchildren, I proposed a silence contest, with a treat for all who could be still.  Silence by the promise of See’s worked.  Had a few pieces myself.

Dessert

We crave something sweet after dinner, a little dessert.  Have you noticed this craving more in winter?  I have.  In times past, summer’s fruit was put away for winter use.  Berries were preserved as jam.  Tree fruits were bottled, or dried.  Dried fruits could be used in compotes.  Traditional fruit preservation has declined because fresh fruits are available year around.  This presents an opportunity to reinvent, or at least redisocover fruit-based desserts:

Here are ten winter fruits desserts that can be made with little sugar:

  1. Apple with cheddar cheese—no cooking required.  See this Washington Post article for cheese ideas.
  2. Apple Crisp with granola topping—there are lots of recipes.  I could eat this every week; it’s great with vanilla ice cream, or just cream.
  3. Pear Crisp.  I’m not a big Ina Garten fan, but she does have a recipe that combines pears and apples.
  4. Chocolate dipped fruits—winter strawberries need a little help and what’s better than chocolate?  Here’s Martha’s recipe.
  5. Tropical fruit—if you have a ripe pineapple, combine it with banana and/or coconut.
  6. Baked Apple—here's a recipe for this traditional winter treat.
  7. Poached Pears (photo shown above)—delicious with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, or lemon sorbet (recipe here).
  8. Banana Nut Bread—good for desserts or snacks.  When bananas get brown spots, simply slip then into the freezer until needed.  Recipes abound but I do a health-up by replacing half the white flour with whole wheat flour, cutting sugar by 1/3 and replacing with brown sugar, substituting butter for less healthy oils, and adding applesauce to reduce the butter.  I also double the walnuts.
  9. Orange slices with warmed raspberries—this recipe is another way to enjoy winter navels.
  10. Dried Fruit Compotes—this recipe can be made from a variety of fruits by simply adding honey and a little vanilla.

Please comment.  Share your favorite healthy fruit desserts and treats.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

Saturday
Dec172011

In Praise of Spices

The quick answer:  Anyone can flavor food with sugar or salt, but artistry with spice combinations is the true measure of a cook. 

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Christmas Parties

We’re really “B” list people, the beautiful wife and I, but dear friends invited us to their “A” list Christmas dinner-party.  It was elegant, fun, and healthy.  The dinner menu included mushrooms stuffed with butternut squash, asparagus, green salad with wonderful fruits, and grilled salmon. After such a healthy meal, chocolate Bundt cake hardly seemed decadent. 

After dinner we shared favorite Christmas stories, some touching and a few hilarious.  Mine was from a college Christmas trip across Nevada, when my car broke down in the middle of the coldest night of the year, in a tiny depressed town, and being offered help by an old man that as far as I could tell was either homeless or very poor.  Though the man has long ago passed from this world, the memory of his kind generosity still lights my life.

On the hilarious side, one couple told of their first Christmas after getting married, also during college.  Because money was tight he had secretly gotten her a present.  In the way of young love, his wife had done the same.  On Christmas Eve, as a maneuver to retrieve the gift from his hiding place, he announced he would go downstairs, where the bathroom was located, to take a shower.  He got the water running, undressed, but before slipping into the shower, darted into the adjoining room to retrieve his hidden present.  At the worst moment, he heard his wife coming down the stairs.  She had decided to retrieve her present for him while he showered!  Trapped and unaware of her purpose, he slipped into a closet to hide until she returned upstairs.  Unfortunately, he chose the closet where she hid his present. 

I’ll spare you the rest of the story, but we laughed until we cried.  I think it a good segue into our next subject—spices.

Spices and Herbs

In our series of grocery store aisle visits, we now come to the spice aisle.  We lump spices and herbs together but there's a difference—herbs come from the leaves of plants, while spices are processed from the seed, fruit, skin, or root.  Spices are healthy ingredients, in part because they’re an alternate to just dumping sugar and salt on food.  The complexity of our seasonings is a measure of our (food) culture.  A command of spice combinations is one measure of a cook’s prowess.  There’s good information on the Internet for the curious cook; another good reference is The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs. 

Spices conjure up romantic images of ancient camel caravans and the adventures of Marco Polo.  Spices were the stimulus behind exploration of the New World, and the wars over the Spice Islands (known for nutmeg, cloves, and pepper; now part of Indonesia). 

The spice wars are over now.  Who won?  McCormick & Company—they’re the masters of the spice aisle in the local grocery.  Remember Schilling spices?  The brand’s gone, bought out by McCormick.  Lawry’s seasonings are there, but McCormick owns them too. 

Here’s an interesting fact about the spice aisle—the foods in the other aisles (think chips, crackers, soft drinks, margarine, etc.) have been processed into unhealthiness.  But spices remain remarkably unchanged—no other food group has survived so unchanged.  I find nothing artificial in the spice aisle.  Spices not only flavor our food, they’re considered healthy and are rich in antioxidants, which accounts for their long shelf life.

 

Spice Economics

Have you noticed the rising cost of spices?  With control of the spice aisle, McCormick has been able to steadily raise prices.  This presented a window for Trader Joes’s, which introduced their Spices of the World brand (shown in the photo below).  The local TJ’s offers twelve common spices in 4” tall bottles, usually priced at $1.99, a fraction of the cost in regular grocery stores. 

The best example is ground dill:  the local grocery charges the equivalent of $426/lb. (in 0.3 oz. bottles) while TJ’s sells the same product for $48/lb (0.5 oz. bottle).  No other food has such an outrageous store-to-store price difference.  Here are other comparisons:

  • TJ’s rosemary is $42/lb. versus $104 for McCormick's version at our local grocery.
  • TJ’s thyme is $34/lb. vs. $162.
  • TJ’s oregano is $11/lb. vs. $97.
  • TJ’s curry is $18/lb. vs. $67.
  • TJ’s garlic powder is $12/lb. vs. $28.

Fair warning:  When I returned to my grocery to photograph the spice aisle all the spices were on sale.  There’s a strategy here that I see in other aisles:  Combine high prices with frequent sales, lest the native become restless.  I resent this manipulation—people aren’t dumb, they’ll figure this out, and see the grocery chain as predator rather than trusted purveyor.  You can see the same behavior with packaged breakfast cereals (where you pay dollars per pound for what is bought at pennies per pound), and other products.

Here’s a trivia question:  What’s the cheapest commonly used spice?  Garlic.

Shelf Life

This will make you laugh.  After studying the spice aisle I saw one difference between spices and other packaged foods in the store—spices don’t have shelf life data, there’s no expiration date.  Because they’re high in antioxidants, spices have a long shelf life, but it’s not forever. 

You can check the age of your McCormick spices this way:  Any spice showing Baltimore as the address (they’re now located in Hunt Valley, MD), is at least 20 years old!  No one keeps spices 20 years, right?  Wrong.  I checked the 64 spices in our drawer; we have a bunch of cans and bottles showing the Baltimore address. 

Spice Mixtures

One way to add value, or at least convenience, is to blend spices that go together and create a new product.  I didn’t realize it until now, but curry is an ancient example.  Curry is actually a mixture of turmeric, ginger, coriander and other spices.  Other examples:

  • Herbs of Provence: thyme, rosemary, savory, basil, lavender, etc.
  • Italian herb mix: marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, basil
  • McCormick’s Bon Appetit: salt, MSG, celery seed, and onion.
  • Lawry’s Seasoned Salt:  salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion, cornstarch, garlic, tricalcium phosphate (prevents clumping), etc.
  • TJ’s 21 Seasoning Salute: onion, black pepper, celery seed, cayenne pepper, parsley, basil, marjoram, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, savory, rosemary, cumin, mustard, coriander, garlic, etc.
  • Cajun’s Choice Creole Seasoning: salt, red, black, and white peppers, garlic, and other spices.

Excepting curry, these pre-mixed spices have limited use.  The beautiful wife, however, likes to use the Italian herb mix. 

Spices for Singles

I discovered a new convenience product, on the market since 2010:  McCormick’s Recipe Inspirations.  These are pre-measured spices, sold on a card with six separate pockets.  To cook, you simple open the card and dump the spices onto the food.  This is a product for less discriminating novices, rather than experienced cooks.   Typical blends:

  • Rosemary Roasted Chicken: rosemary, garlic, paprika, and black pepper.
  • Apple Sage Pork Chops: sage, garlic, thyme, allspice, and paprika.
  • Caribbean grilled Steak: garlic, cumin, onion, oregano, and red pepper.

There’s a big need for products that enable the novice cook, or the single person, to make simple homemade meals.  Recipe Inspirations isn’t a healthy answer, in my view, as the current offering is based on meat dishes.  But isn’t there an opportunity for products that simplify cooking for one, that don't’t compromise the wholesomeness of the food?  They should have these criteria:  Based on whole foods, ease-to-use, and affordable.

Please comment:  Share your favorite spice combinations, or spice tricks from your kitchen.  Or tell about your favorite Christmas foods.

Monday
Dec122011

Saving Old Recipes

The quick answer:  Recipes are often family heirlooms, but those from the last century may require "healthing-up".

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1000 Words

I’ve renewed my intention to keep posts under 1000 words so can’t tell the whole story of our recent trip to Sacramento.  Except to say we attended the funeral of the beautiful wife’s namesake Aunt Clare; had dinner with my Mom who gave us some of her delicious Heavenly Hash (mixed berry jam) and prized Christmas fruitcake; and stopped at Elk Grove Walnut Co. for just-harvested walnuts at $5/lb., shelled.  (Yes you can get some, just Email: egwalnut@comcast.net.) 

But I did tell the walnut lady the lovely story of how Aunt Clare’s husband died after a 50-year marriage and how she rediscovered her first true love, whose wife had also died, and how through the years each had saved a portrait of the other, and how at 80 he swept her off her feet, again, so they could spend their last years holding hands in Hawaii.  Which simply proved that Robert Browning was right when he penned, 

Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be,

 The last of life, for which the first was made . . . .

As I turned to leave, the walnut lady,  wiping a tear from her eye, thanked me for sharing the story. 

Nor can I tell how my Mom’s dad, a hard rock miner, died of pneumonia when she was just two, and how she and her widowed mom survived the Depression by the grace of God and the kindness of her Aunt Kate (she of Aunt Kate’s Chili Sauce), and how through the hard years Mom came to cherish the promise of Christmas future.  I can’t even tell the story of how at the moment she turned from girl to young woman, when she expected nothing for Christmas, her mother surprised her with a beautiful green gown that she later wore to the dance where she dazzled her husband-to-be.  Well, actually, that story has to be told—next week we’ll set food aside and tell a Christmas story.

Cooking and Flavor

By now you know I can’t resist a good story.  But the real subject of this post is how to improve old recipes.  On our drive to Sacramento I read Mark Bittman’s Ebook, Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet.  It’s short, meant to be read in one sitting, and echoes the argument we’ve made here:  If you want good health, cook!  I didn’t realize when I started this blog that home cooking would be the key to health.

Bittman, in his Ebook, shared his three favorite flavors for improving a dish:

  1. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
  2. Highlight with smoked paprika.  (Not the old stuff sitting in your spice drawer waiting for you to make deviled eggs, but Spanish paprika, also known as pimenton.)
  3. Toss on whatever fresh herbs you have on hand, chopped.  (This works best, I think, if you have a herb garden, or at least some leftover parsley, cilantro, or thyme.)

 


Taking Stock

Bottom line:  It's best to make your own stock.  The picture (above) shows the evolution of stock.  Campbell's broth, mixed as directed, costs $3.34 per quart.  Swanson's Chicken broth is $3.39.  Maggi's chicken bouillon flakes are cheaper but the ingredient list starts with "salt, cornstarch, MSG, hydrogenated palm oil", etc.  Actually, all these imitations of old-fashioned chicken stock are high in sodium (salt) and artificial ingedients.  The tastiest, cheapest, and healthiest is our homemade chicken stock (shown in the pint Mason jar).

Saving Old Recipes

Have you looked through the recipes of a grandmother or great-aunt who has passed on?  If so you will notice that between the World Wars, food began to be modernized, i.e. made more convenient, or more factory-processed.  Food Inc. accelerated meal preparation, but didn't tell us they were also speeding up our aging process. 

Stock, as shown above, was replaced by high-salt, low-taste, factory substitutes.  Lard was replaced by Crisco, or hydrogenated vegetable oils.  And the amount of sugar in cakes and cookies approached the amount of flour, which was refined and bleached.  If you love those old recipes, here are some tips I’ve collected to "health" them up.  (Yes, "health" can also be a verb.)

  1. Flour:  Use whole grain flours, or a mixture, in place of refined flours. 
  2. Sugar:  Minimize the use of sugar; reduce sugar by ½, or at least by ¼.      
  3. Broth:  If a recipe calls for store-bought chicken broth, Campbell’s, or chicken bouillon cubes—pull out your homemade chicken stock.  Last week I made three batches of Skip’s Potato Soup.  For the 3rd batch I forgot to take my chicken stock out of the freezer so, because I was in a hurry, I used store-bought.  We could tell the difference—the soup was good but the flavor was diluted.
  4. Fat:  Only use healthy fats.  Ignore the call for Crisco and substitute butter, or lard if you’re experienced.  Instead of refined vegetable oils, use butter, olive oil, coconut oil, or cold-pressed organic oils. 
  5. Low-cal stuff:  Minimize low-calorie versions of food.  There are no studies—to my knowledge—showing any benefit from low-calorie food products.  The best way to reduce calories is to avoid refined foods in favor of whole foods.  Whole foods are full of fiber and fill you with way less calories.
  6. Ditto for low-sodium products.  Less salt is better but some, especially if prescribed by your doc.  But the bigger issue for most if that salt is mainly found in processed foods.  Lowering the sodium doesn’t restore the lost nutrients.  Often low-sodium foods are higher in sugar.
  7. Vegetables:  To increase your intake, puree your produce and add it to entrees, sauces, and soups.

Please comment, share your share your favorite healthy recipes, or your favorite healthy cookbooks.  In the next post we’ll tell how the Sunday roasted chicken got processed into those frozen chicken nuggets. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.