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.

A Sexy Salad for The Big Night

13 02 2012

Well, it’s time for the big Valentine’s romantic meal, and lots of people are making reservations for gourmet restaurant feasts. They will dine on oysters and steak, cream doused pastas, and then a big chocolate dessert, all accompanied by plenty of alcohol. Then, if they are lucky, they will head home to pursue romance in the bedroom.

Unfortunately, that big, heavy meal and all that alcohol will probably only hinder their activities. In fact, they may find themselves slipping into a sugar coma before they even get started.

So my advice to you, if you want to get lucky on Valentines, and all year long, is eat a light meal of plant-based aphrodisiac foods.

These foods, unlike their sat-fat laden alternatives, actually nourish the sexual systems. Believe it or not, guys who eat right don’t need Viagra. In fact viagra was inspired by a chemical that you can get from a good diet, nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is made in the body from l-arginine, and it has the unique ability to relax the blood vessels. It’s really good for circulation and heart health in general, but that particular action is helpful for the now famous ED, or erectile dysfunction. L-arginine is high in meats, but also in beans, nuts and seeds.

That’s right, the natural foods version of viagra is right there in a healthy pantry. OK, viagra is an amped up version that works right away, while the one you get from food needs to be a part of your diet daily to make a difference. And why not? The plant foods that contain l-arginine are delicious, and healthy for you in so many ways.You can also buy it in supplement form, if you want to make sure you are taking care of your circulation.

If thinking about sex will get the dudes to eat nutrition all-stars, then so be it, bring on the sexy stuff.

So, for a pre-romance meal, try this sexy salad.

A few handfuls of Arugala provides a peppery, mineral rich base, that has long been considered an aphrodisiac.

Sprinkle on some cooked black beans, rich in l-arginine, which converts to nitric acid, the blood vessel relaxing compound that inspired the invention of Viagra.

Top that with sliced avocado, which replenishes your good fats, potassium and vitamin E that helps produce hormones for keeping things flowing.

A few sliced cherry tomatoes, or “pomme d’amour” as the French used to call it, boost your vitamin c and the lycopene needed for prostate health.

A drizzling of a nut or seed oil amps up the Omega 3 fats for your heart and necessary good circulation, as well as more hormone production.

Top that with a generous sprinkling of sunflower seeds, which pack plenty of zinc that men need for sexual health.

Squeeze a lime over the pile and shower it with minced red chiles, which raise your metabolism and warm your lips in a provocative way.

A sprinkling of coarse salt and some cracked black pepper is all you need.

Save the dessert for after the romance. You’ll have earned a treat.

Magic Flax, The Vegan Egg

29 08 2011

Pretty flowers, Powerful Seeds

When conventional bakers contemplate baking vegan, the ingredient they find hardest to do without is the eggs. You can use other fats instead of butter, and there are vegan sugars that will do most of the tricks that white sugar does. But eggs, well, you don’t see vegan angelfood cake for a reason.

I’ve baked my share of vegan treats, and have found that one of the most natural and healthy ways to bake without eggs is flax seed. In the 20 plus years that I have been putting eggless treats into ovens, there have not been any technological innovations to replace the venerable flax seed. Powdered egg replacers are ok for some things, but flax is so whole and natural, why not stick with it?

To work your egg replacing magic, whole flax seeds just need to be ground to a fine powder and mixed with water will form a gluey paste. The classic substitution is 1 tablespoon of ground flax mixed with 1/4 cup water to replace one egg. The flax must be ground, since the hulls of the tiny seeds are very sturdy, and can’t be broken by chewing or in your digestive tract. Grinding the seed causes the contents of the miracle seed to open up and create a gel-like substance when wet. What is so unique about it is the way it works in the oven. The thick gel actually traps and holds the gases created by leavening, allowing baked goods to rise and hold their crumb.

Golden Flax in the Grinder

The perfect symmetry of it all is that flax seeds also pack a concentrated dose of nutrition, including the Omega 3’s that vegans need to seek out in plant form. Thanks to Mother Nature, flax is a great source of ALA that is converted in the body to the EPA that everybody is seeking out in fish oil.

For your information, 2 Tbs flax has 146 % of the Omega 3’s, 30 % of Manganese, 20% of the fiber, 18% of the magnesium, 15% of the folate, 12% of the copper and 10% of the phosphorus you need per day.

That Omega 3 is important for vegans, who don’t get any fish, so that they can reap the health benefits of this essential fat. Omega 3 is used by the body to make anti-inflammatory prostglandins, which help balance out the inflammatory effects of many other fats. Studies show that the omegas help prevent bone breakdown. O 3’s produce flexible cell membranes, which are associated with better processing of glucose and insulin. O3’s also protect the colon from cancer.

In studies done with flax, its been shown to  prevent and control high blood pressure, lower risk of stroke, and lower cholesterol in a way that is comparable to statin drugs. One of the super components of flax are the lignans, which convert to estrogen like compounds in the gut that protect breast health, and have been shown to reduce hot flashes by 60%

So, to get started baking with flax, start with a simple cookie or muffin. A recipe that has just one or two eggs will be easiest to experiment with. Or try this link:


Popeye’s X-Ray Eyes

3 07 2011

Baby Collards in My Garden

Remember those old cartoons, where the character who ate carrots suddenly had super-x-ray-vision? Well, carrots are great, but of late, research keeps pointing to Kale. Specifically, to the Lutein found in kale and other leafy greens.

I don’t know about you, but I really like being able to see. In recent years, I have watched my Mother go through eye surgery, multiple treatments, and a steady loss of vision. Her sister also suffers from vision issues, and the two of them undoubtedly share genes with me that will lead me down a similar path. But I have been seeing an opthalmologist for annual screenings, and I think I have a secret weapon in my diet. Greens.

The latest study, published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry ,says that lutein may protect the DNA of photoreceptive cells in the retina from the harmful effects of strong light. This adds to previous research showing that lutein helps protect us from age-related macular degeneration. The American Macular Degeneration Foundation reports that research shows that supplementation can actually replace lost pigments in the eye, and they recommend getting a daily dose of 6-30 milligrams of lutein and zeanthin, another carotenoid that is often present in the same foods.

These results have fueled a market for lutein supplements, which are, curiously, made from marigolds. But as long as you are trying to protect your health, maybe you should just load up on the green stuff. The highest amounts of lutein in foods are in leafy greens of all sorts, as well as in other colorful foods, like egg yolks, corn and oranges.

If you are going to eat with an eye to getting lots of lutein, remember to eat some fat with it, since it is a fat soluble nutrient, and needs fat to be absorbed. A cup of cooked kale has over 30 milligrams, which would be in the range of a good days worth. A cup of cooked spinach has over 14 mg, a cup of collards has at least 16.

Oh, and a baby carrot has 35 micrograms. That means you have to eat alot of them to get any significant amount of lutein.

No matter your age, you need to protect your eyes from damage. I’m betting on a steady diet of greens to help keep my eyes in top form, for whatever genetic curve ball is heading my way.

So, how do we get our greens? In a previous post, I extolled the joys of the green smoothie. I like to start every day with a blender drink made from 5 ounces of spinach, 1 ½ cups of frozen berries, a banana and 1 ½ cups of juice or kefir. If you are using juice or fat-free dairy, add something with a little fat, like a tablespoon of almond butter, or a splash of coconut milk.  It really tastes great, and I eat 55 mg of lutein before I leave the house.

Link to that post:


Kale is a source for other nutrients vegetarians need, like calcium and EFA’s, so it’s worth exploring. The simplest way to prepare it is sautéed in olive oil, with some garlic and chiles for an Italian flair. Stirred into soups, curried and pureed, or blanched and dressed for a salad, kale has a hearty flavor that is best with other strong tastes. Lately I like to finely shred kale into coleslaws, with vinaigrette dressing. Collards, turnip greens, and mustard are all from the same eye-loving family, so give them a try. Spinach is the sweetest and mildest of the lutein greens, so if that is easier for your palate, dig in.

I’ll be seeing you, thanks to my kale salad!

Marinated Kale Salad

Here is a link to a simple kale chip recipe on Vegetarian Times’ Website:


May is Mediterranean Month!

14 05 2011

Soaking up Mediterranean Sun

May is a good time to think about eating healthfully, with summer sneaking up on us, we all get a little bit more “into our bodies.” Getting active and moving around outside, hopefully that motivates us to think a little more about maintaining our health for the long haul.

If you are in that frame of mind, the Oldways organization has declared May “Mediterranean Diet Month.” If you are not familiar with Oldways, they are a wonderful group that was founded in the 80’s to educate modern eaters about the wisdom of eating the “old” way. The Mediterranean Diet is an ancient way of eating that emphasizes unprocessed foods from the Med region. Lots of whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds, fish, a little dairy, and very little meat, with olive oil and wine thrown in for good measure.  Med goes Veg very easily.

If you are thinking of going veg, or of trying to tempt people to eat veg with you, Mediterranean foods are always crowd pleasers. The meatless standards of hummus, tabouli, veggie lasagna and big salads are all from the Mediterranean. Just skip the fish and replace it with walnuts and other high omega 3 foods, and you will be dining like the ancients. Small amounts of dairy, in the form of yogurt and cheese, can work for you, or you can go vegan and eat more calcium rich leafy greens. Whole grains are an important base for the Med diet, and they confer all their health promoting qualities to you as you enjoy them in hearty Greek salads and Lebanese flatbreads.

The reasons for reviving the good old days of eating are many. Oldways has collected countless studies showing that eating this way will prevent most of the diseases of our current society, from heart disease and diabetes to obesity and tooth decay. Olive oil and walnuts are even associated with lowered risk of depression.

for a past post on that:


The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was created by the group based on the eating style of the island of Crete, Greece and Southern Italy circa 1960, when their rates of chronic diet-related disease were enviably low. 1960 isn’t all that long ago, but those regions were still eating the way their ancestors did, and enjoying life to the fullest.

The Oldways Pyramid, Just take out the meat and fish

So if you want to stay active, feel great, and eat delicious food, the Mediterranean way is a good way to go.  It’s certainly a tasty way to eat yourself well!

For recipes on the Oldways website, go here:


Mediterranean Eggplant and Barley Salad

(from Oldways)

This recipe was passed from Oldways Staffer Georgia Orcutt to Sara Talcott after a conversation about the wonders of barley, and now is a favorite. Its flavors are rich and complex, and it is wonderful over a bed of spicy arugula, and can be served cold or at room temperature. Recipe adapted from Gourmet.


1 1/2 pound eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
10 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup chopped scallion (from 1 bunch)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/4 cups pearl barley (8 oz)
1 3/4 cup veggie stock or 1 3/4 cup water
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 pound cherry tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, rinsed and drained if desired
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint


1. Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 425 degree.

2. Toss eggplant and zucchini with 5 tablespoons oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl, then spread in 2 oiled large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pans. Roast vegetables in oven, stirring occasionally and switching position of pans halfway through baking, until vegetables are golden brown and tender, 20 to 25 minutes total. Combine vegetables in 1 pan and cool, reserving other pan for cooling barley.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then cook scallion, cumin, coriander, and cayenne, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add barley and cook, stirring until well coated with oil, 2 minutes more. Add stock and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all of liquid is absorbed and barley is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Transfer to reserved shallow baking pan and spread to quickly cool, uncovered, to room temperature, about 20 minutes.

4. Whisk together lemon juice, garlic, sugar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add barley, roasted vegetables, and remaining ingredients to bowl with dressing and toss until combined well. Serve with cheese slices.

Nutritional Analysis:

Per serving: Calories: 324, Protein: 6 grams, Fat: 19 grams, Saturated Fat: 3 grams, Carbohydrates: 36 grams, Fiber: 10 grams, Sodium: 533 mg.

8 servings
for a hummus recipe:


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