Sunday, 30 January 2011

Big Fat Post

Fat.  The word doesn't sound like a hallmark of good health.  The only thing most of us know for sure about fat is that we love it, but we don't want to BE it.  The low-fat craze in the 90's died down once we realized that all of those low-fat products just contained a load of sugar, and we then decided to stop thinking about it so much.  Fat tastes awesome, and besides, saturated fat turned out not to be that bad, right?  Doctors don't really know if fat is good or bad, anyway, so I can just eat whatever I want. 

Wrong.  Here's the thing I think most people don't understand.  Many different things can be bad for you all at the same time.  Because one kind of fat starts making headlines about causing diabetes and heart disease, doesn't mean that another kind of fat has stopped causing diabetes and heart disease.  It means that both kinds of fat are causing diabetes and heart disease.  That's why there's so much, um, diabetes and heart disease in our society.  Medical researchers know exactly what kind of fat you should be eating or avoiding.  But there are big, powerful, scary industries that really don't want you to be well-informed on the situation, and the media, which revels in public confusion, plays along.

So do we need fat at all?  Fat is absolutely a necessary nutrient.  When we talk about fat as a nutrient, we use the term essential fatty acids, or EFA's.  You know from the protein blog, that in health terms the word essential means a nutrient that we need, and that we have to get from food. EFA's help in blood clotting, vitamin absorption, brain function, cell and hormone production, and they provide energy.   Fat is in almost all foods, in varying amounts, so having a fat-free diet is actually impossible, and good thing too, because you need EFA's to live.  However, our confusion mostly centers around which kinds and how much we need.   Kinds of fat can be divided into three main categories: saturated fat, trans fat, and unsaturated fat.

Does saturating your arteries in a mostly solid, greasy substance sound like a good thing?  Okay, that might not be a technically accurate description of what happens when you consume saturated fat, but the fact remains that you should be eating as little saturated fat as possible.  Saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis.  SatFat causes high blood pressure, depresses the immune system, and increases the risk of cancer.  Wait a second...something that we're doing could be causing cancer?  It's not some inevitable punishment from the gods that has randomly increased every year for the last 80 years for no reason?  Weird.

So where does saturated fat come from?  Herein lies the clue why we're being fed misinformation: the main sources of saturated fat are meat, dairy, and eggs.  Surprise!  Coconut and palm oils are mostly made up of saturated fat as well, although in the western world, most of us don't eat very much tropical oil, so these are not as much of a concern.  The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 7% of your calories from saturated fat, but those of us who consume meat, dairy, and eggs usually consume almost double that amount.  Saturated fat is not kinda, sorta bad.  Saturated fat has killed so many people it makes Charles Manson look like Father Christmas.

Trans fat is much better understood by the public, and we receive a clearer message about it, I think.  Trans fats were the Big Bad for the last few years.  They are naturally found in small amounts in meat and dairy, but they are also found in hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils, which are an entirely human innovation.  Hydrogenated oils are formed during, well, hydrogenation, a process with forces hydrogen gas into oil at a high pressure.  This process came into being in order to prolong the shelf life of packaged foods, as hydrogenated oils don't go rancid as quickly.  Trading our health for longer lasting cookies was such a great idea.   Trans fats lower your good HDL cholesterol, and raise your bad LDL cholesterol.  They increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, clog up those arteries, and increase your risk of diabetes.

So how to you avoid this junk?  Under European law, trans fat doesn't have to be listed in the nutritional info of a product, but hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil do have to be listed in the ingredients, so if you have a product that does not list dead flesh or animal juices in the ingredients, and also does not contain hydrogenated oils, you have a trans fat free product.  You will want to carefully check the labels of pre-packaged cookies, biscuits, crackers, and other baked goods, and of course, fried fast food (including chips!) are usually fried in partially hydrogenated oil.

Health experts recommend consuming no more than 2% of your daily calories from trans fatty acids, but honestly, you don't need any trans fats in your diet.  Aim to consume none.  If you live in UK (A.K.A Chiptoria), and you ever socialise, you won't succeed, but try.

Over the past several decades we've been swept up in a muddle debate over which is superior from a health standpoint:  margarine or butter?  One year, we hear margarine is the only way to go, the next year butter is not that bad, and margarine is the new taboo.  The bottom line is, in reference to most commercial margarines, neither butter nor margarine are healthful, and both carry some concerning health risks.  Butter contains small amounts of trans fats and concerning amounts of saturated fat, most margarines

LDL cholesterol (the bad one) and raise your HDL cholesterol (the good one).  They contain circulation promoting arginine, antioxidants, fiber, protein, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals.  They lower your risk of heart disease, and extend your lifespan and protect against common disease of aging.  In fact, studies have found that those who consume one little ounce of nuts a day lower their risk of getting fatal coronary heart disease by 59%.  A fifty nine percent decrease in risk of the biggest killer in any developed country today wrapped up in a delicious little package?  Yes please.

In Dan Buettner's book, The Blue Zones, he studies four different areas of the world that have an unusually large percentage of inhabitants who live past 100 years of age.  One of the areas he visits is the Seventh Day Adventist's region, Loma Linda, California.  The mostly vegetarian residents had a love affair with nuts (stop giggling), and this love affair was pin-pointed as one of the main factors contributing to their long lifespans.

I know some people have a fear of nuts and avocados, due to their high-fat content.  Some of you may fear that eating these items will give you a high-fat content yourself.  Relax.  Studies have shown that people who consume nuts actually have lower BMI's than those who don't.  Nuts satiate hunger better than animal fats or plant oils, and actually aid in weight control.  Now, it's true that a gram of fat contains 9 calories, as opposed to the 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein.  So obviously, you don't want to go, well, nuts on any source of fat, especially if you are watching your weight.  A few handfuls a day of nuts or seeds, or a few slices of avocado should suffice. 

Opinions do vary quite a bit in regards to what percentage of your calorie intake should come from fat.  The standard, government approved figure is around 30%, other health experts working with people who have a specific reason to worry about heart problems would tell you try to keep it closer to 10%.  However, assuming you are already in reasonably good health, I would spend more time focusing on the quality of your nuts, rather than quantity, and simply don't buy nuts in large quantities (they go rancid fairly quickly anyway).

The next time we chew the fat about fat, we'll talk about the health benefits of plant foods and oils made from plant foods.  But right now, I'm pretty proud that I made it through the whole post with only two nut puns, so I'm going to leave on a high note.  Only two puns?  That's peanuts!

Vital Vittles

African Sweet Potato and Peanut Stew

While I was writing this blog, I was racking my brain trying to think of the perfect recipe for this post: one that would be focused on healthy fats without using oils.  And completely by co-incidence, I made this stew that evening, having found it in The Vegan Table, UK, Can.  Delicious and nutritious, the recipe features peanut butter, and uses water for sauteing, rather than oil.  Serve it with either whole-wheat couscous or brown rice.

Serves 6-10

3 tbsp water, for sauteing
2 yellow onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 red peppers, chopped
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cayenne
1/3 to 1/2 cup natural peanut butter (either crunchy or smooth will work, but look for a brand without sugar or added oils)
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 can kidney beans (or 1.5 cups cooked beans from scratch)
1 can diced tomatoes
4 cups veggie stock
1 tsp salt (or too taste)

Head water in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add onions and garlic and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add bell pepper, cover, and cook for another  minutes.  Stir in brown sugar, finger, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper, and stir constantly for 30 seconds.  Stir in peanut butter, distributing evenly throughout.  Ad sweet potatoes, kidney beans, and tomatoes, and stir to coat.  Add veggie stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft, about 30 minutes.  Salt to taste, and serve.

Notice that this recipe makes a large amount, and the stew is fairly filling, so unless you're throwing a dinner party, or you're a Huxtable, you will have copious leftovers.  Which can't possibly be a bad thing.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

New Year, More Money!

I know some people don't like New Year's resolutions, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a little self-improvement.  I also know that today is 5 days after New Year's, but I think you get the whole of January to make them.  Especially if you only keep them a week, deciding on them later in the month will make people think that you actually kept them longer.  Frankly, there are enough resolutions running around about losing weight and eating better, so instead I thought I would propose a few penny-saving resolutions instead.  January, being cold and dark, is a crappy time to try to lose a bunch of weight, but most of you probably spent to much money over the holidays, making January an excellent, and possibly compulsory time to save some money.  So here are some ideas for running a cost-efficient home kitchen.

Resolve to:

1.  Replace more expensive protein-rich foods with beans and legumes.  Beans and lentils are not only nutritional powerhouses, they are the cheapest sources of protein you will find.  If you don't eat them very often, resolve to keep some cans in your cupboard and eat them at least couple of times a week.  Eat the beans, I mean, not the cans.  Cans of beans are very cheap, but if you really want to spend next to nothing, buy dried beans and soak and cook them yourself.  I like to cook beans myself, not only for the financial benefits, but also because something about the practise makes me feel pleasantly medieval.

2.  Start throwing dinner parties instead of going out to eat.  You might think that you will spend more hosting dinner for other people than going out, but I find that as long as you keep costs in mind (and your guests bring the drinks), you can entertain very cheaply in your own home, without sacrificing deliciousness or fun.  Consider starting a dinner party ritual with your friends, alternating the host.  If you decide on potluck dinners your bank account won't even notice that you're having fun.  And while playing tipsy charades (an essential part of any dinner party) is frowned upon in restaurants, no one but your loved ones will judge you in the privacy of your own home.  And even if you live in squalor, you will be amazed at what a thorough cleaning and some tealights can do. 

3.  Replace sugary cereals with porridge.  Porridge is the cheapest breakfast imaginable, while most processed cereals are simply charging you stupid amounts of money to give you diabetes.  Sure, you might not want a bowl of steaming hot porridge in the middle of July, but for most of the year, porridge is the healthiest, and most economical breakfast around.  Endless ways to prepare porridge abound, from dried fruits and nuts, to fresh berries, apples and cinnamon, jam, and natural syrups.

4. Start packing your lunch 4 days a week.  Granted, this piece of advice might not be terribly original.  But no one's doing it.  Having been in plenty of different offices in the last couple of years, I can confirm that the only time most people bring their lunch is when buying their lunch would involve walking long distances.  If you struggle to remember to prepare lunches, you have two alternatives.  Either make extra dinner and bring the leftovers the next day for lunch, or make large batches of substantial dishes on Sundays, and store them in individual portions.  Brain surgery, right?  But no one's doing it.

5.  Learn a few soup bases.  Learning the basics of how to make soup is oh-so-important.  You will save money and eat less by adding lots of soup to your diet.  And the possibilities are capital E Endless.  Anything!  You can put anything in soup!  Dig through some cookbooks or the internet for recipes for blended vegetable soups, chunky vegetable soups, minestrone, miso soups (my recipe is for one is at the bottom of this post), lentil soups, bean soups, and whatever-else-you-can-imagine soups.  Once you understand the basic formats of a few different soups you can play around with them and add whatever you have on hand that will compliment the recipe.   Such flexibility and improvisation allows you to avoid that huge drain on your wallet known as wasted produce.

6.  Save and use everything.  Preposterous amounts of food get wasted by the foolish everyday.  Join the ranks of the elite group of people who know how to recognise when a vegetable is about to go off (without the use of meaningless supermarket best before dates), and can put the middle-aged veggie to use.  If you have some produce that is going off and you can't find an immediate use for it, throw the produce in a resealable bag and chuck the bag in the freezer.  Prioritise your weekly produce: use up things that expire quickly, like leafy greens, at the beginning of the week, and save more robust things, like squash, for the end of your shopping week.  Always save leftovers for later; even small bits of dishes can be put away for an easy snack later on.  Even the skins and ends of your veggies can be saved for compost if you have your own garden, or for soup stock.  Read Stone Soup (UK), (CAN), for inspiration!  Hey, that book works for Resolution 5, too.

7.  Keep some homemade frozen dinners in your freezer.  Note the word homemade.  I do not condone or encourage you to buy or eat factory-produced frozen dinners!  Keeping some delicious, healthy dinners in your freezer at all times will help you out on those evenings when you are too tired to cook, and the take-out menu drawer looms dangerously near.  I'm not suggesting that you never get take-out or go out for dinner, but any such indulgences should be planned into your week and budget.  Make sure that the dinners are something you will actually want to eat as well, and your hunger will stop ruling your debit card on lazy, tired evenings. 

May you enjoy pain-free frugality this year.  And quit smoking.  Blech.


Rainbow Red Lentil Soup

This wholesome, homey soup is based on another recipe in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, (UK), (CAN), that I've modified only a little, to make it rainbow-y. And better. Having unintentionally made the soup multi-coloured once, I fell in love with the pretty pastels of the purple "red" onion, yellow bell pepper, and orange carrots and lentils.  You also get red from the tomatoes, and green from the spinach.  Feel free to play around with the recipe, and add different vegetables or spices.  This soup is works for this post on different levels, because lentils are traditionally served at New Years, as their coin-like shape is seen as representative of good luck, abundance, and wealth.  See, that's what you get when you take recipe suggestions from an English grad.  Double-metaphor soup.

1.5 cups red lentils
6 cups vegetable stock (or 6 cups water and 1-2 stock cubes)
3 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 slices fresh ginger root, each about the size of a quarter

2 medium carrots, chopped
1 cup canned tomatoes
1 yellow bell pepper

1 large red onion
1 tbs olive oil
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1.5 tsp ground coriander
pinch of cayenne
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1-2 cups baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Chuck the lentils, stock, bay leaves, garlic, and ginger in a pot, cover and heat on high.  Add the carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers.  Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce heat to a simmer.  Simmer for 15-20 minutes, covered, until the lentils are tender.  Add the spinach a few minutes before the lentils are done cooking.

In the meantime, saute the onions in the olive oil until soft, for 5 to 10 minutes.  Add the cumin, coriander, and cayenne, and cook for another minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from the heat.

Remove the ginger and bay leaves from the lentils.  Supposedly, people have choked on bay leaves before, so make sure you get all three.  Stir in the onions and lemon juice, and season to taste.

Some crusty whole grain bread and a fresh salad will make this soup a complete, wholesome lunch.