A Big Bowl of Happiness?

26 03 2012

Sunshine and Rainbows with the Happy Way to Eat

We all know the physical benefits of eating more plants. Lower cholesterol, a healthy heart, lower body mass, decreased risks of all the big, bad diseases. When vegans and vegetarians talk about their lifestyles, though, they often describe a new feeling, a feeling of being lighter, clearer, happier and more energetic. Feeling good is about more than getting good triglyceride numbers at your annual physical, and now some researchers have taken a closer look at why veg diets make people feel happier.

The study, published in Nutrition Journal, put control groups of omnivores on either an omnivorous, fish only, or vegetarian diet. The study went for two weeks, and at the end, the participants were tested for mood and depression. The researchers, Bonnie Beezhold and Carol Johnston, theorized that the balance of essential fatty acids in the different diets would make a difference in mood. At the end of the study, the mood test scores of the veg group improved significantly, while the rest stayed the same.

So, the researchers wanted to know if the fish group, with their Omega 3 (EPA and DHA) rich diets, would have better moods, and they did not. In blood tests, the fish eating group had more Omega 3’s in their blood, but they had far more Omega 6’s. The vegetarian eaters had dropped their blood levels of EPA, DHA and more importantly, AA, the arachidonic acid in meat, down to negligible levels.

So, the researchers drew the conclusion that the arachidonic acid could be a real downer. Its important to remember that conventional meat and dairy is much higher in Omega 6’s, including AA, because it is fed corn and grain, while grass fed is supposed to have a better balance of 6 and 3.

The effect of essential fats on the brain is well-known, we need them for our brains and nervous systems to function. So, a little background is in order. Basically, we need to get Omega 3’s and Omega 6’s from food.

A typical Western diet has plenty of the omega-6s, linoleic acid, gamma-linoleic acid, and arachidonic acids (LA, GLA, and AA). Linoleic acid is in nuts, seeds and their oils, grains, and soybean oil, all of which are eaten by omnivores and vegetarians alike. AA is largely from animal foods and is associated with heart disease and inflammation. Arachidonic acid has also been found to cause negative changes to the chemistry of the brain that lead to negative moods and depression.

The omega-3s EPA and DHA are where most people fall short, omnivores and vegetarians alike. Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), found in flax, hemp, walnut, and canola oils, as well as in green leafy vegetables and sea vegetables, is pretty pervasive, thanks to the popularity of canola. But the eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids (EPA and DHA) that come from fish or the algae that fish eat, or from sea vegetables .

Vegans will be relieved to know that the body converts some of the LA you consume into GLA and AA, and the ALA into EPA and DHA.

The imbalance, which the researchers point out, is that most of us eat way too many Omega 6’s. Vegetarians, though, are not getting all of the Omega 6’s and especially Arachidonic acid that meat eaters get from meat. In the current state of affairs, industrial meat and dairy is contributing to the imbalance in Omega 6, as well as the high AA in the diet.

So, veg-heads, if you have been convinced for a long time that eating this way just makes you feel better, there is scientific evidence to back you up. Keep striving to get those Omega 3’s from chia, flax, walnuts, and canola oil, since they are good for you, too. And omnivores, you would do well to cut back on meat, if you want to improve your mood.


Crunchy Sunflower Seeds, The Hippies Were Right

5 03 2012

The Sunny Seeds

When was the last time you thought about sunflower seeds? Were you cracking the shells at a summer picnic or ball game, or filling the birdfeeder with the shiny black seeds? I know that  I forget, sometimes, that sunflower seeds are such a nutrition powerhouse. I don’t think I am the only one who associates them with old-school hippie food, something we used to sprinkle in salads and bake into granola back in the day.

Well, sunflower seeds are much more than a little crunch on a salad, and they are just as exciting as the chia and flax seeds that are so hot right now. Recently, folks with peanut and nut allergies have been embracing sunflower seed butter, and in my neck of the woods, an enterprising farmer is making a lovely cold-press sunflower oil. (Read about it here.)

So, I am reminding myself to eat more of these tasty seeds. Sunflower seeds are a prime source for phytosterols. Phytosterols are the plant based compounds that lower cholesterol, so effectively in fact that they are made into special margarines and pills for that purpose. Phytosterols are so similar to cholesterol that they compete for absorption in the digestive tract, decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood.The food highest in them is sesame seeds, followed by sunflower, which delivers  280 mg per 100 grams.

They are also a good source of magnesium. Magnesium calms nerves, muscles and blood vessels, and helps with detoxification and cancer prevention, and recently was shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The seeds also deliver lots of folate, the important B-vitamin that prevents neural tube defects and is good for your brain function.

Just 1/4 cup of sunflower seeds has 61% of the Vitamin E you need for the day. Vitamin E is a powerful fat soluble antioxidant, reduces inflammation and helps with all conditions in which inflammation is a part. It also prevents cholesterol from oxidizing and forming plaque in the arteries. Vitamin E rich foods have been linked to reduced risks of stroke and alzheimers disease.

Are you motivated to get some sunflower seeds into your life? The most common way to eat them is as a snack, and roasted sunflower seeds pack easily to accompany you on your busy life. Think of them whenever you might use nuts, whether in a muffin, cookie, bread or salad. Add them to your granola or hot cereal, or use them as a crunchy coating or casserole topping.

Try these tasty cookies, for a little bit of sunflower goodness.

Sunflower Seed Nutrition Info:

¼ cup/%DV

Vitamin E 61%,B1 34%Manganese 34%, Copper 31% ,Tryptophan 31%, magnesium 28%, selenium 26%, B6 23%, phosphorus 23.1%,  folate 19%, calories 11%

Sunny Cookie

Sunflower-Maple Cookies

Makes 12

Use toasted sunflower seeds for these, and check them for freshness before buying. The great taste of a fresh sunflower seeds is easily ruined by sitting in a bin for too long.

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup toasted sunflower seeds

1/4 cup coconut oil, melted

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, stir the coconut oil, maple, and vanilla, then stir into the dry ingredients. Scoop 2 tablespoon sized portions of dough and form into 3/4 inch thick cookies. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. They won’t spread much.

Bake for 12 minutes, switching the position of the pan halfway. Cool on racks. Keeps for a week, refrigerated.

The Truth About Weight Gain, and The Nutty Salad

9 01 2012

Start with Lettuce

So, here we are in the January shape-up season, the time of year when a few million people resolve to eat better and possibly lose some weight. Should you go high-protein, low carb, whole grain, fat free, vegan, paleo?

Well, a new study published in the Journal of American Medicine says that what really matters is the calories that you consume. The researchers overfed a group of 45 volunteers in a controlled environment, making sure they all got the same excess of calories.  But, to test a theory, Dr Bray and his researchers tried three diets, low, medium and high protein, with the same excess of calories, and the people all gained weight. The unexpected thing was that  low-protein eaters actually gained less. For some reason, people eating only 5% protein gained less weight. The researchers speculated that there was a metabolic difference for the low protein over-eaters.

Go figure. Of course, the high-protein diets will always be popular, and there will always be a new weight loss book coming down the pike. It’s interesting that we just have to keep learning about calories in, calories out, over and over. All that flesh food that people build their meals around is, at least according to this study, turning to fat just as fast as french fries and white bread-possibly faster.

So, if you want to lose weight, cut calories, and don’t go crazy for protein. One great way is to keep loading on those high-volume, low calorie vegetables. Last week I talked vegetable soup, this week, let’s look at salads. Are you bored with yours? I refuse to eat boring salads, just because they are good for me.

In fact, if you make boring salads, you are just making sure that you will not love, crave, or continue eating them, and that runs counter to everything we should be doing in a healthy kitchen. So I have a little trick to share.

Try adding the nutrition of nuts to your dressing, then sprinkling some on your salad. It adds calories, yes, but they are very nutrient-dense calories, and will make you feel satisfied as you eat your piles of low-cal veggies. Since you are a vegetarian, you can handle a little high fat food in the form of nuts, which you need to get healthy EFA’s, the fats that your brain and heart need to function. This dressing is cut with a little veggie stock, and uses less oil than the conventional vinaigrette, but gets body from the nuts.

I know it runs counter to all the anti-fat diets out there, but nuts are actually associated with weight loss, because they are so satisfying. So pile up the plants, and douse them with this tasty, nutritious dressing, and dig in.

You’ll feel full and enjoy it. I promise.

Super Nutty Dressing for Salads

1/2 cup pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts or pistachios, toasted-save half for the salad
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup fresh basil, parsley, cilantro or other mild leafy herb

1/2 cup vinegar, lemon juice or combination of the two

1/4 cup vegetable stock

pinch of sugar or agave
salt and pepper
1/2 cup nut oil, olive oil or a combination with flax oil added

1. In a processor, grind the nuts, saving half for topping. Add the garlic and parsley or herb and grind to a smooth paste. Scrape the sides of the processor bowl and add vinegar or lemon, stock, sweetener and salt and pepper. Process until well mixed, then with the machine running, whip in the oil.

2. Then, build a big, interesting salad with lettuces, shredded kale and cabbage, tomatoes, slivered onions and zucchini, sprouts, and all the raw veggies you enjoy. Add some cooked veggies too, for wintertime, like blanched green beans, halved and steamed brussels sprouts, steamed broccoli, whatever sounds good. Top with nuts, drizzle with your nutty dressing, and enjoy.

Adding salad to all your meals will help you fill up and feel satisfied. Having a meal that is all salad, well, that is just more of a good thing!

Is Your Spice Rack Better than a Medicine Cabinet?

14 08 2011

Open These Jars for Great Health

We have known for some time that spices like turmeric and cinnamon have health benefits. Turmeric is a potent antioxidant and anti inflammatory, and cinnamon is thought to help regulate blood sugar. But a recent study found that adding antioxidant-rich herbs and spices actually changed the way diners bodies reacted to a high fat meal, by reducing their insulin response by 20% and increasing the antioxidant levels in their blood by 13%. The really interesting thing was that it also reduced their triglyceride response by 30%.

The spiced meal contained 2 tablespoons of  rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, garlic powder and paprika. On another day, participants ate the same meal, without spices, and on both days the participants blood was drawn and tested every 30 minutes. The study was done at Penn State and published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Trigycerides are a kind of fatty acid found in the bloodstream, which come from food and provide energy. High triglycerides are a harbinger of high risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and in recent years have become a regular part of having your cholesterol tested. We have also become more aware of the role of inflammation in all of these conditions.

The gist of it is that your body will be better able to process the fat in your food if you have plenty of these antioxidant rich spices at the same time. Instead of flooding your bloodstream with triglycerides and spiking your insulin, your Korma with Raita and Dal will keep you on the even keel we all want.

So, curry lovers rejoice!

Try cooking with spices with an Indian recipe, like dal or rice, and try adding a little more spice than the recipe calls for, and see how you like it. Look for fresh turmeric roots in the produce department, and add them to stir fries and other veggie dishes. Of course, rosemary and oregano are on the list, too, so you can go Mediterranean and mince lots of fresh rosemary and oregano into olive oil for a bean salad or bruschetta.

Whenever we talk curry, we think India, but there are plenty of curries with turmeric, like the yellow Massaman curry of Thailand, Sri Lankan curries, even the curry of Jamaica. Basically, eat foods with plenty of color and spice, and you will probably reap the benefits.

Of course, the two tablespoons of spice per meal may be a bit much for many of us to accomplish on a regular basis. Many of these herbs and spices are available in pill form, too, so if you don’t eat enough spice to have an impact, you can always supplement.

Let your food be your medicine, and life can be tasty AND healthy. Now that is a good deal.

Mash Ki Dal/white Lentils Recipe

Artificial Colors, Why Are These Still Here?

13 02 2011

What Price for Visual Appeal?

Bright blue snow cones and psychedelic sprinkles have a big appeal with kids. And yellow lemonade, brown granola bars and beige salad dressings seem natural, but are often artificially colored, too. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that amping up the look of foods with artificial colors is a bad thing. Especially for kids.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 2010 report “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” the use of food dyes has increased fivefold since 1955. Most of them are derived from petroleum, although one red, cochineal, is made from ground up beetles, a big no for vegans.

The report makes clear that there is really no benefit to adding these carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic chemicals to our food supply, especially when there are natural alternatives, like red derived from beets. It also states definitively that artificial colors do promote hyperactivity and ADHD in both children and adults.

In fact, European countries have been requiring warning labels on artificially colored foods since last year, stating:  “consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Many American companies make versions of artificially colored food they sell here with natural alternatives to sell in Europe, so it’s not like they can’t make the switch.

Now I don’t know about you, but it seems like plenty of adults I know are suffering from various levels of ADHD, and can’t pay attention to anything for very long. You can blame twitter and television, but when we know that these additives are promoting this, maybe we are looking at mass brain intoxication.

All those energy drinks aren’t naturally yellow, you know.

On CSPI’s Definitely Avoid list, the top offenders are Blue #2, Green #3, Orange B, Red #3, and Yellows #5 and #6. They all go by aliases, as well, so if you see erythrosine on an ingredient list, that is a red dye.

As a consumer, avoiding artificial colors can be tricky. Citrus Red, a known carcinogen, is used to color the skins of oranges. As a zest user, I find that reprehensible, but since I buy organic, I am avoiding it. Red 40 is implicated in immune system tumors and hyperactivity, and is the most commonly used color in the food supply. Most of the colors are implicated in asthma, rhinitis and hives.

Just skipping the snow cones is no guarantee, believe it or not, Smart Start Cereal and Nature Granola Bars can contain colors, as do almost all Kraft salad dressings. You would think that getting granola to be brown would be a no brainer, but who knows what goes on in the packaging process or while it sits on the shelf.

Read labels, buy all-natural foods and go organic to avoid food dyes. That neon sports drink or baby blue frosted cupcake may seem innocuous, but why add to your toxic load? Just avoiding unnaturally neon foods is not enough, either, as they slip these things into natural looking foods, like canned fruit, that might get a little too pale in the preservation process. Look for foods that use natural food coloring, such as annatto extract, beta-carotene, beet powder, caramel color, fruit or vegetable juice, paprika, saffron and turmeric.

There are enough things that we ingest and breathe that we can’t control, and if we know that these are harmful why put them in our bodies? Maybe if we stop buying this junk they will take a hint.

And if you need to color a frosting, try this natural coloring, I’ve used it and it works just fine.India Tree Natural Decorating Colors 3-Count

If You’re Going Nuts, Eat Some Nuts!

24 10 2010

Nature's Answer to Stress

Stressful situations are unavoidable. Try as we might, life is going to throw us some curve balls. For that matter, taking on challenges is an important part of living a full life, and a little stress goes along with making those leaps.

Before you reach for a handful of pills, think about a handful of walnuts, or downing a shot of flax oil. That’s right, a new study showed that the alpha linolenic acid found in walnuts and flax helped measurably reduce blood pressure in people who were undergoing stress. The good fats concentrated in these tasty foods already help reduce bad LDL cholesterol, but now we have another good reason to eat them regularly.

This is especially good news for vegetarians. The Omegas in vegetarian sources are often seen as second rate, much like vegetarian iron and Vitamin D. The conventional wisdom is that the Omega 3’s in fish oil are better, because the ALA in plant sources has to be converted in our bodies into docosahexaenoid Acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). That is still true, but this shows a benefit for the vegan ALA that is unique.

For the study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 22 adults with high LDL levels were put on one of three calorie-matched diets with identical amounts of fat and protein: a standard American diet without nuts; a similar diet, with 1.3 ounces of walnuts and a tablespoon of walnut oil replacing some of the fat and protein; and a third diet including walnuts, walnut oil and 1.5 tablespoons of flax seed oil.

Participants saw a drop in their LDL and resting blood pressure, and when put in a stressful situation, like giving a speech, their blood pressure was measurably lower.

The bonus was that the group taking flax also saw a drop in C-reactive protein, a blood marker of inflammation that is a predictor of heart disease.

So, vegetarians, vegans and especially omnivores would do well to replace some of the fat in their diets with walnut, flax, hemp and canola. Vegans will optimize their conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA by eating a balanced diet, with enough protein, B6, Biotin, Calcium, Copper, Magnesium and Zinc. If you worry that you are missing out, take a supplement. The National Institutes of Health recommends that a person eating a 2000 calorie per day diet should strive for 4 g of omega 3’s, which can be achieved with a tablespoon of flax oil or a scant 1/2 cup of walnuts. Small amounts in other foods do add up, with a cup of broccoli adding .2 g, or 4 oz tofu at .36g.

It’s easy to use walnut and flax oil in your salad dressing, as a bread dipping oil, or as part of spreads or smoothies. The whole walnut eating is too fun to consider a sacrifice, and adding ground flax to smoothies and baking is effortless.

And practice your low-stress, zen detachment when faced with stressful situations. It may even help to think about how calmly your blood vessels are pumping blood, even as you feel that little flutter of excitement. You may be nervous about that presentation, but at least your body will stay calm when it counts.

Walnut Vinaigrette

Meatless May Make You Happier!

6 07 2010

Yummy walnuts are a great way to get Omega 3's

We all know that eating a vegetarian diet has beneficial effects for your heart, circulation, and health in general. But for a while now, some experts have questioned whether skipping the fats found in fish might make vegetarians brains less healthy. Combined with possible shortages of B12, some people thought that the lack of the fats found in fish oil might make vegetarians more likely to suffer from depression.

At least that was the theory.

In the June issue of Nutrition Journal, a new Study done by researchers at Arizona State University took a look at this theory. And it looks like it is wrong.

The study looked at Seventh Day Adventists, some of whom were vegetarian, some omnivorous. They all took tests to assess their moods and anxiety and depression levels. The vegetarians were actually happier. They also kept track of everything the subjects ate, and the vegetarians did eat less Omega 3’s, but they also ate less arachidonic acid, another of the omega fats. One of the roles that omega-3’s play in the brain is to displace arachidonic acid, which drives inflammation in the brain and throughout the body.

So, while further study is always needed, the researchers concluded that meat-eaters need the omega-3’s to protect their brains from the inflammatory lipids in meat, while vegetarians can get by with fewer omega 3’s because they are not eating so much of the arachidonic acid.

Arachidonic acid is the bad boy of the omega family. According to Dr Barry Sears : “The worst fats are are saturated fats, trans fats and (AA) arachidonic acid. I consider these to be really “bad” fats. Arachidonic acids are found primarily in fatty red meats, egg yolks and organ meats. This particular polyunsaturaed fat may be the most dangerous fat know when consumed in excess and is known as an Omega 6 fat. The human body needs “some” arachidonic acid, but too much can be toxic. Ironically, the higher your insulin levels, the more your body is stimulated to make increased levels of arachidonic acid.”

The thing with the omega fats is that they need to be in balance, and most Americans eat way too many Omega 6’s, like the arachidonic acid in meat, creating the inflammation problem.

Of course, depression is a serious illness and the human psyche is complex and wonderful. Nobody is saying that salads are a miracle cure. Still, it makes sense that you need to feed your brain right for it to work as well as possible. Diet can be a valuable tool for keeping an even keel and supporting brain health. So, if you, or perhaps your Mom, were worried that your veg diet might un-balance your brain, the news is good.

Ovo-lactos can get some of these fats and B12 from eggs and dairy. Vegans can look to Flax, hemp, tofu and walnuts for Omega 3’s, and canola oil has some too. B12 is also important to your brain, so vegans should look to either Nutritional yeast, fortified soymilks and cereals, or supplements.

Who knows, maybe vegetarians are a little happier because they know they are taking good care of themselves and the environment. But it is good to hear that the meatless diet helps support a happy outlook, from the inside out.