Archive for tag: food

The Season Is Changing - So Should Your Dinner

Adiós, slow roasted sweet potatoes and beef. Hello, green onions! Although the calendar says spring doesn't officially start until March 20th on the Spring Equinox, we all felt the shift about a week ago. I'm not just talking about the temperature moving from 35º to 55º in two days, although that was awesome, too. When the seasons change, everything changes. If you are remotely in tune with your body, the earth, the energy of the universe, etc., then you felt it, too.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of the Five Elements or Phases shows that each season is connected to one of the functional organ systems of the body. Winter is the kidney and spring is the liver. Easy enough, right? Well, there's more. The body needs to be prepared gently and thoroughly for the transition to a new season, and while acupuncture and herbal medicine certainly play their role, dietary therapy is really where it's at.

The winter was a time of hunkering down, tonifying the kidney and urinary bladder with salt and animal fats, thickening the blood, and conserving energy through the cold long season. Now that spring is upon us, it's time to lighten up -- literally. The Inner Classic teaches that we should reawaken the body and prepare for new beginnings by rising with the sun and taking brisk walks. Spring is the time to gather up stored energy and push upward, like a sprouting plant in the garden.

Spring is also a time for cleansing, and TCM focuses that cleansing on the organs that need it most this time of year -- the liver and gall bladder. After gorging on fatty steaks in the winter, the springtime requires a diet of small amounts of light food with yang qualities. Think sprouts, greens, young plants, and shoots. Heavy foods can clog the liver and gall bladder, leading to fevers and other springtime maladies.

Want specifics? Lay off the salt -- including soy sauce and miso -- and heavy meats. Instead, cook with something lighter, bringing in the pungent flavors of basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill, and bay leaf. Throw in some young garden pickings like small beets, carrots, and peas. Use more simple, raw foods instead of slow roasting or stewing. Both the Ayurvedic tradition and the ancient Chinese encouraged people to choose wind-like, airy foods during the springtime, to promote cleansing and new growth.

While the Chinese do not recommend eating raw foods in abundance or all year round, they do encourage more raw foods in the springtime. If a person is weak, frail, or deficient, then they might not do well with raw foods, even during the spring. If a person is hot and full of excesses, then bring on the plates full of raw celery and cucumbers. As with everything, dietary recommendations are guided by general principles, but are always customized to the individual.

In the United States, our climate is mostly temperate. Thus, we can apply most of the dietary suggestions from TCM, including the use of light, raw foods in the springtime. You can still cook some things -- just make it quick. A short, high-temperature sauté is appropriate, as is a brief steaming.

Why should you care to adjust your springtime diet? You don't have to. You can go on shoving your face full of rib eye and baked potatoes slathered in sour cream and butter (Ohh, I miss the winter diet already!), but tell me how you feel in about a month or two.

What's the risk? The liver-gall bladder duo can be quite a beast. The first sign of an imbalanced liver is angry outbursts, accompanied by frustration, dissatisfaction, and impulsiveness. Once the gall bladder gets bogged down, too, then add in indecisiveness and unclear thinking. You might experience eye or vision trouble or tendon stiffness and joint pain, or pain or discomfort anywhere along the Liver or Gall Bladder meridians of the body.

I know it's hard to change. I love salt, steak, and butter more than anyone I've ever met, but I've also learned my lesson. I've clogged my liver and gall bladder one too many times. I've had the blurry vision, sticky feeling in the eyes, bitter taste in the mouth, angry outbursts, and all of the other things the Chinese warned me about.

Photo of gallbladder cleanse text

This week, I'm doing this -- the TCM Gallbladder cleanse!

When Organic Doesn't Matter

It's a personal struggle to write that title, because I firmly and fully support the eating of USDA certified organic produce, meat, and dairy. In so many ways it does matter, but I just heard myself saying to my daughter. "It doesn't matter if it's organic!"

2015-03-06_logoWhy does organic matter? Many people already know the basics, like "Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics." That's just some of the picture, though. Here's what the USDA website says about their certified organic standard:

Organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

2015-03-06_fieldLet's break some of these down to see why they matter. Food is all safe and nutritious, right? Wrong. Definitely wrong. Reading the processes and procedures that are outlawed by the USDA organic seal is kind of like reading the warnings on a chainsaw instruction manual. "What? Don't stick your fingers into the blade while it's moving!" They only have to write that in the warnings because, yes, someone actually did that.

Take a look:

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock.The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

Organic multi-ingredient foods.The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.

Yummy. Yes, I think I'll spend the extra dollar on my bag of apples to avoid some of these delectable details. Plus, with all of the new research coming to light on the higher levels of nutrients found in organic food compared to conventionally grown food, it's becoming a no-brainer to choose organic whenever possible.

2015-03-06_signAdmittedly, this isn't perfect. Things like "preserving natural resources" can be widely interpreted. Additionally, USDA certified organic is a stamp given by independent, third-party certifiers. Wouldn't they want to approve the farm if at all possible, so that they get the job again next time around? It's a potential conflict of interest.

Perhaps the one detail from the above list that drives people in droves toward the USDA certified organic label is that these items cannot contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). With the current standard in the US ofnothaving to label a GMO a GMO, the USDA certified organic standard is the most obvious way to avoid GMOs.

I guess I just spent most of my time explaining why organicdoesmatter. Tricked you...? No, this blog post really was inspired by the kitchen scenario with my daughter, which went as follows:

2015-03-06_berryDaughter: I'm going to eat this whole pack of strawberries. I'll just wash them off really good because they aren't organic.

Me: It doesn't matter if it's organic! Pesticides have soaked it to the core and can't be washed off. Plus, the guy who picked them could have had poop on his hands.

So, although choosing organic is very important most of the time, there are a couple of exceptions. Wash your strawberries.

How to Make Granola

2014-06-25_granolabowl

A friend once asked me if I knew how to make granola. I'm sure I looked puzzled as I answered, "No...I thought granola was...like...its own...thing...?" As in, I thought granola grew out of the ground. Actually, it's not that I was firmly certain that was the case. It's just that I hadn't given it a thought before I was hit with this question.

Wrong! The farmer doesn't harvest a granola crop. Someone has to make it, as in, out of other ingredients. This same friend, who was at that point now fully aware of my ignorance on the topic, was resourceful enough to send me over her family's granola recipe. Turns out, it's easy, quick, and flexible for when I'm out of half of the things the recipe actually calls for--as usual.

2014-06-25_ingredientsHere's the basic ingredients list:

  • 4 cups oats
  • ¾ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup nuts

I translate that as old-fashioned oats (steel-cut definitely doesn't work…oops), turbinado sugar, water, homemade vanilla (we can talk about that another time), sea salt, sliced almonds, black sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds. Start out by boiling the sugar and water together, and then stir in the vanilla and salt. Combine everything else, dump the wet mixture on top, stir, and spread evenly across a parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Finally, sprinkle cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric on top, then slip into the 275º oven for one hour. Or, as my granola friend said, "sometimes I do 30 minutes at 350º because I'm impatient." 

2014-06-25_granolabefore

It's glorious. After making my entire house smell like Christmas, it comes out of the oven all golden brown and audibly begging me to eat it. I do. I burn my tongue. It's just part of the process. Then, I let it cool unattended on the counter for about an hour, and then we pour what's left of it into Mason jars for the week. Yum.

2014-06-25_granoladone

Why do I make my own granola? I don't trust what any commercially produced granola contains by the time it reaches my mouth. I think mine tastes way better. I'm fairly sure it's cheaper to make your own. Plus, my house smells like Christmas. I think that's just the cinnamon, but I don't want to pin it down and ruin the magic. In a larger way, making granola is just one more small step that I've taken in the direction of natural living. It's a process. I don't know anyone--certainly not myself--who has been able to flip the switch one day from all commercial products to all homemade products. The world in which we circulate today is a mass-produced, globalized society. We want it bigger, better, and right now.

I suggest taking a small step whenever you can. Relax. Make some granola. Smell it. Eat it. Repeat.

How Salads and Evil Qi Can Make You Gain Weight

How could salads cause weight gain? If you have Damp-Cold and you're trying to lose weight by eating cold, raw, veggie salads, you might not shed the pounds. "How can this be?" everyone is now screaming -- probably silently, that's fine. I thought eating lots of spinach, topped with radish, cucumbers, celery, etc. was supposed to help melose weight.

For some people, this might be an effective strategy, particularly if you are swapping out fast-food double cheeseburgers in favor of homemade veggie salads. Certainly, there is the undeniable benefit of increasing the nutrition you're taking in by adding more produce to your diet. I'm sure we all know someone who started eating more salads and less junk food and fairly promptly dropped a few pounds. Great.

So, why doesn't it work for everyone? In fact, why does eating all raw, cold veggie salads even have the possibility of causing weight gain in some people?

No, the answer is not about the dressing that you put on the salad! That would be too easy, not eastern-medicine-related, and frankly, it would probably cast a dark shadow on my consistently whole-fat dietary lifestyle approach.

Instead, my point here is related to one of TCM's six evil qis -- technically, two of them. I used the terms "cold" and "damp" earlier, and this is one of those special moments when normal, everyday words take on more specific meanings in the context of Chinese medicine. I think we call that "connotations." In TCM, Cold and Damp have pathogenic connotations.

A person can be constitutionally Cold or Damp from the get-go, or a person can be invaded by a Cold or Damp external pathogenic factor (actually called an "evil (xieh) qi"). Foods are like people; each food has specific properties, such as Cold, Hot, and whether the food leads to damp retention or drying out in the person who ate it.

In the case of a Cold, Damp person trying to lose weight, we need more hot, drying, acrid foods, and fewer raw, cold, damp foods on the plate. If this seems counter-intuitive, keep in mind that there are plenty of healthy, nutritious foods that have hot and acrid properties. Ginger and peppers, anyone? Yes, please.

What is your favorite food doing for you--or to you? My favorite book on nutrition, Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, goes into detail on the connections between your diet and your health. Or, quickly check out the properties of some common fruits, veggies, meats, etc. here: http://www.tcmecc.org/foodtherapy.htm

Choose wisely, my friends.

My Loathe-Hate Relationship with Microwaves

I pretty much hate microwave ovens. Everyone who's been to my home knows that I haven't even had a handle on the door of my microwave in the past 5 years. I distrust this appliance. I find them abhorrent. I think they are one of the actual and figurative problems with American society today. Why do people regularly cook food in a box that changes it at the molecular level, rendering the food nearly nutritionally void? Convenience, my friends. Convenience.

Veg2I'm committed to using the oven and the stovetop as my cooking methods of choice. Sure, any heating destroys some of the nutritional content of many foods, but these methods are gentler and less damaging on the goods. Why is a microwave worse? Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, explains, "Microwave ovens heat food through a process of creating molecular friction, but this same molecular friction quickly destroys the delicate molecules of vitamins and phytonutrients (plant medicines) naturally found in foods."

This isn't groundbreaking news, people. Years ago I was scarred for life after reading that the microwave destroys around 97% of the vitamins and other nutrients in vegetables. Apparently, many people are OK with this, judging by the new microwavable veggies in "steam bags" available at your local grocer. Yuck, and no thanks. If I'm choking down peas, they better have full nutritional value, thank you very much.

Veg1If you haven't faced the hidden toxins in your microwave popcorn by this time, let me offer you a hand up to 2014. One of the most special ingredients in the little bag is diacetyl, which, although derived from butter, acts as an artificial butter flavor in the microwave popcorn. Sounds nice enough, until you find out that when heated it releases a gas that frequently gives popcorn factory workers a condition called "popcorn lung." Actual name--bronchiolitis obliterans. Break that Latin down. "Obliterate my bronchioles?" Yep. Turns out, it can also happen to the consumer who heats and eats this stuff at home, and it can certainly happen to the mice in laboratory settings that are exposed to this heated chemical.

Veg3And that brings me to the reason that I keep my old broken microwave around at all. Well, first of all the gaping hole above my stove would look weird. Mostly, though, the reason that I keep my microwave is because I actually melt butter in it when I air pop popcorn, which, if you know me, you'll know is all the time. I try to lessen the evil of my popcorn addiction as much as possible, believe me. I melt the organic, grass-fed cow butter on low power in a glass dish. I pour it over organic popcorn (to reduce my pesticide exposure). I lovingly tap on a good amount of sea salt, and then I eat it with voracity that only another popcorn addict can understand.

So, I'm guilty. I hope I never said I was perfect, because that would be way off. However, I do what I can to reduce my exposure to some of the health-hampering substances on the market today, including microwave popcorn. For now, the microwave, which I vehemently hate, stays... if only for one small but critical purpose in my life.