Articles in Health

Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric: Health experts keep telling us to consume these foods to fight cancer.

But articles from a New York Times science journalist are challenging the view that diet can prevent cancer. The evidence on the influence of specific foods is weak, George Johnson wrote in a series of recent columns and in a book just released in paperback. Johnson reported that the results of studies connecting diet and cancer were conflicting and the numbers of preventable cases, small.

Ergo, diet doesn’t matter?

Diet certainly matters, says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, the country’s leading cancer treatment hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report’s most recent rankings. Eating a plant-based diet, as opposed to a diet high in fat or animal protein, is important for preventing cancer as well as all chronic disease, she says.

Faced with this competing points of view, we must make many decisions each day about what to feed ourselves and our families. How do we evaluate the research when it’s not perfect? How do we make the best decisions for our health? Here are five starting points:

1. Why is the evidence is conflicting?

The evidence is often conflicting because the science is complicated, says Maxson.

“It’s true that the research findings regarding individual foods and nutrients are often inconclusive. But this is not because diet has no effect has cancer risk. It’s because the study of food and nutrients is very complex,” she says.

The nutrients contained in a head of broccoli, for example, will depend on the cultivar, where and how it was grown and how it’s prepared, she says. “How the nutrients in a food behave in the body depends on all the other foods it’s consumed with, the genetics of the person consuming it, and the microorganisms in the colon of the person consuming the food.”

Variables like these can explain why one study might find broccoli protective and another not, and as scientists unravel the nuances, they’re able to design better research. “We’re only beginning to understand the complexities of diet, nutrition and cancer relationships,” says Dr. Stephen Clinton, a researcher and physician who, along with a small group of scientists, is currently revising the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines.

2. Are there research-based guidelines on diet and cancer?

If you do a PubMed search, you’ll come up with more than 50,000 studies on diet and cancer. How are we to make sense of them?

The American Institute of Cancer Research and its partner, the World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF), can serve as guides. These two nonprofit organizations study the studies.

Since the 1990s, a panel of AICR/WCRF experts — researchers and physicians from around the world– have been reviewing the evidence and producing periodic reports as well as broad dietary guidelines, which are used by hundreds of cancer treatment centers, including MD Anderson. “AICR/WCRF is the world’s preeminent organization working to define evidence-based recommendations regarding how diet and nutrition impacts cancer risk and survivorship,” says Clinton.

While the recommendations are for preventing cancer because that’s where most of the research is focused, cancer survivors, they say, should also follow these guidelines once treatment is completed. The suggestions include:

  • Be lean. As the columnist points out, obesity increases the risk of many common cancers; body fat produces hormones that drive cancer growth.
  • Consume plant foods primarily.
  • Eat a variety of them.

Despite the inherent flaws in scientific research, “the evidence that whole diets involving a wide variety of plant foods provides real protection remains as strong as ever,” said AICR’s director of research in response to the columns.

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

Garlic in bunches. Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

3. What about specific foods and nutrients?

As part of its review process, AICR/WCRF judges the strength of the evidence on various foods and nutrients.

AICR/WCRF reports that there’s “probable” evidence that foods containing lycopene (tomato sauce, for example) or selenium (Brazil nuts, broccoli, garlic) decrease risk of prostate cancer and that diets high in calcium increase risk.

There’s “convincing” evidence that foods with fiber decrease risk of colorectal cancer and that red and processed meat increase it, they say.

Most often, however, the organizations deem the evidence “limited” or “suggestive,” meaning that more study is needed.

“We know of many food constituents that have anti-cancer properties,” says Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute and a member of AICR/WCRF’s expert panel that reviews all the studies. Garlic, broccoli, green tea and turmeric, for example, have been shown to fight cancer through extensive good research, he says. “But we do not know precisely which mixture of these constituents works best.”

Guidelines thus focus on patterns that decrease risk, such as plant-based diets, rather than individual nutrients or foods, he says. “What you eat certainly matters.”

4. How much cancer may be preventable?

According to AICR/WRCF estimates, approximately one-third of the most common cancers in the U.S. are preventable by a healthy diet and weight along with physical activity. For some types, the estimates for preventability are particularly high: colorectal, 50%; endometrial and esophageal, almost 60% and 70%, respectively.

In the U.S. alone, that’s nearly 375,000 cases of preventable cancer each year, said AICR’s director of research in a letter to the New York Times.

You can’t just look at each food individually and calculate risk, says its director of communications. “You have to look at the total diet and how all the foods you choose to eat and avoid together impact your cancer risk. You owe it to yourself to play the odds.”

5. What might your plate look like?

Playing the odds according to AICR‘s New American Plate design is fairly straightforward:

Fill at least two-thirds of your plate with plant foods, at most one-third with animal foods. Control portion sizes. Limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces weekly. As for dairy products, however, the evidence is still uncertain.

Meanwhile, as we continue the inevitably long wait for sufficient research-based evidence to warrant public policy on cancer and diet, I’ll be sticking to healthy plant-heavy patterns, lunching on this Mediterranean salad and not worrying about an occasional dollop of tzatziki. A walloping portion? Now that’s another story.

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com/

Holly Botner, the Jittery Cook at jitterycook.com

 

 The following recipe is  courtesy of The Jittery Cook.

Jittery Cook’s Fattoush Salad

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 7 minutes

Total Time: 27 minutes

Yield: 4 meal-sized servings

All times are estimates. Cooking time for the pita varies from 7 to 10 minutes.

Ingredients

  • ½ small head romaine, torn
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 bunch mint, chopped
  • 2 cups mâche (lamb's lettuce)
  • 1 cup arugula
  • 6 red radishes, cut into thin half moons
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 6 Lebanese cucumbers, cut into chunky half moons (not peeled)
  • 1 red onion, cut into small strips
  • For the pita:
  • 1 large whole wheat pita
  • 3 teaspoons zataar
  • olive oil to lightly coat pita
  • For the dressing:
  • 2 lemons, juice only
  • ⅓ cup olive oil (or more, if lemons are large)
  • 1 heaping tablespoon sumac
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Attack alliums first! Peel onion very gently, then cut it into a few parts and let it sit for a half hour before cutting finely and adding to salad. Smash garlic, let it sit for at least 10 minutes, then mince just before adding it to dressing.
  2. Separate the pita through the center, into two circular halves. Coat the insides lightly with olive oil and sprinkle on zataar. Cut into long strips, then bake at 350 F for 7-10 minutes, until crisp.
  3. Combine salad ingredients, dressing ingredients, and toss salad with dressing. Add pita to dressed salad. Either break strips into chips and toss with dressed salad—or serve in long strips for dramatic flair.

Main photo: Garlic is one of the foods that the National Cancer Institute says can reduce the risk of several types of cancer.  Credit: Harriet Sugar Miller

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Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

One of my best food friends is white pastry wheat. White refers to the tint of the bran — wheats are either white or red. Pastry means a soft wheat, one with low levels of gluten-forming proteins. Those proteins are what help build the gluten matrix when using hard or bread wheats; soft wheats make tender cakes and quick breads. The pancakes I make from Farmer Ground Flour’s organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour are the definition of perfect in my family, the pancake of request for my 11-year-old’s birthday. The pancake that means pancake and home.

Farmer Ground Flour is a mill that stone grinds organically grown New York State grains. Grain farmer Thor Oechsner is part owner in the mill; he and his fields, and millers Greg Mol and Neal Johnston, are great help as I try to understand flour from field to griddle.

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

Golden wheat heads, a couple of weeks before harvest. Credit: Amy Halloran

My favorite wheat gets planted in the fall. Fall crops go in the ground in September or October, early enough for the seeds to grow a few inches before winter. Fall planting helps seeds get a head start on weed seeds that sit in the ground. Spring can be pretty wet, and hard for farmers to get in the field, so that’s another advantage of this habit. Grains take to this system pretty well, since they are the edible seeds of certain grasses, and much like a lawn, these grass crops go dormant.

Snow cover helps protect the crop. A certain amount of winterkill is expected in fall planted crops, but this past winter, things looked pretty dicey. In New York’s Finger Lakes region, plenty of snowstorms hit but the snow melted quickly. In low spots, that melt turned to ponds.

Beyond this local hint of doom, there was some general anxiety in the wheat world about supply and prices. By March, stores of North American organic wheat had dwindled. The 2013 wheat crop was limited by continued drought in the arid Southern Plains; regional supplies in the Northeast were limited by a very wet season. Larger organic mills were turning to Argentina for bread wheat. This fact, plus political pressures in Eastern Europe, created worry about what this year could bring for harvest. Late freezes hitting the Plains States during greenup, the time when fall planted grains start to grow, fueled my wonder.

winterkill-2

Soft white pastry wheat in April. Credit: Amy Halloran

Mid-April, I took a drive to Ithaca, N.Y., to see how my future pancake flour was doing. Amazingly, some of the fields were greening up quite nicely. Sure, there were spots where the plants did not survive, but those tan tips that sat over iced snow were getting crowded by green growth. What a delight to see.

This is what the field looks like now, a couple of weeks before harvest: a field of wheat rows, as American as a box of cereal. Look at those green stalks peaking through the gold heads. Ah, breakfast.

Why did this field and other fields recover? Winterkill is also known as winter survival. Plants that had enough room bounced back from the harsh conditions and grew well. Another factor was the plants having strong enough roots to withstand the pressures of temperature changes from winter through spring.

This tiny rye plant just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved. Credit: Amy Halloran

This frost-heaved rye plant lacked the roots to survive. Credit: Amy Halloran

This tiny rye plant (pictured right) didn’t make it. It just didn’t have enough roots to hang on to the ground as temperature swings pulled the dirt together into frozen clumps. It was frost heaved.

Winter survival is tricky. Too little growth and the earth kicks out the plant. Too much, and the long green leaves attract mold, or other smothering problems. The malting barley crop in New York suffered a 50% loss due to winterkill, which is understandable, as growers are just figuring out how to make this crop work. The state’s 2013 Farm Brewery Law, which ties licensing for a certain kind of brewery to use of state agricultural products, such as grains, hops and honey, has caused a bit of barley fever.

A work in progress

Growing wheat and barley outside of the grain belts is a work in progress. Grain farming and processing, like malting, concentrated in the Midwest, Plains States and Northwest in the late 19th and early 20th century; this consolidation wiped out knowledge and infrastructure for how to grow grain crops in the Northeast. Farms grow grains for dairies, but cows eat differently than we do. And they do not drink spirits or beer.

Growing grains for malting, distilling and flour markets is more complicated than growing for animal feed. These specialty markets need different seed varieties and fertilization practices to hit certain performance markers, like protein levels. Growing food grade grain also requires more cleaning, and careful post harvest handling and storage. The learning curve is steep as people switch from commodity production to community enterprises.

I’m lucky to have a window on these grain ventures, and see people cooperate as they try to figure out what works. Right now, my pancake-flour-in-the-making looks good. The crop isn’t in the bin yet; there’s still time for weather to wreak havoc. But the farmers and researchers I’ve talked to are optimistic. Yields will be down, but there will be wheat.

Main photo: Those tan and brown matchsticks are wheat plants, trapped in ice sheets. Oh my, I thought, what are we going to eat next year? Credit: Rachel Lodder

 

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Why stop at superfoods like blueberries when you can discover new ones? Credit: Nolan Hester

I’m browsing the superfood aisle at Whole Paycheck, wondering if the companies that sell these products just discovered they’re super or they’re food. They discovered they’re superprofitable — that’s for sure. High in antioxidants or other powerful nutrients, their chia and hemp seeds, cacao nibs, maca powder and goji berries are going for $18 to $25 a pound. And South American acai, camu and maqui superfruit powders sell for a whopping $80 to $138 a pound! Apparently there’s nothing dense about the marketers of nutrient-dense foods. But since there’s no USDA certification for superfoods, who’s to say my maca’s not mediocre?

I don’t see any scientists using the term “superfoods,” and critics say there are plenty of whole foods that are really and truly nutritious. Still, there must be some authority deeming these foods so super. I’m picturing this superfood czar in a corner office of the jungle surrounded by mountains of seeds, berries, roots, nuts and nibs with a big, red rubber stamp that says, “SUPER!”

Hey, I’m as good a judge of super as the next foodist. Maybe I could cash in on this new cash crop! I’m thinking the best way to do it is to discover my own superfood. First I’ll pick a country — one that’s outside the superfood spotlight yet has vast jungle offerings. There are already Brazilian and Amazon superfoods; Incan, Andean and Aztec superfoods; Turkish, Persian, Kashmir and Chinese superfoods; Mediterranean and African ones, too.
Hmm … Bhutan might work. It’s got amazing biodiversity with the Himalayan mountains, rainforests and jungles and is still largely untouched by the West. They must have something I could forage to make my fortune. I can already see a jungle-to-table logo on the packaging. And since the Bhutanese are Buddhists who coined the term, “Gross National Happiness,” they should be pretty chill over my intention. But berries and seeds are so last year. Wouldn’t it be neat if I could find a berry and seed superfood in one? A berryseed would be the super-est food ever!

The Koch sister of sustainability

Yep, I’ll swoop into Bhutan, find all the berryseeds, form a corporation, get the local women to harvest them, create a women’s cooperative, and then donate 10% back to them and claim my company is all for their benefit. Ooh, I like it. I just need to get Fair Trade, USDA Organic and Rainforest Alliance certifications, and I’ll be on my way.

Adair Seldon in Cascais, Portugal. Credit: Niles Seldon

Adair Seldon in Cascais, Portugal. Credit: Niles Seldon

It shouldn’t be too hard. I’m sure there are lobbyists swarming that corner jungle office. I can hardly wait to hobnob with the palm oil-maker mucky-mucks at trade shows in Indonesia. I’ll be the Koch sister of sustainability. I’d hate to give up this lucrative career as a food blogger and all, but the world is awaiting my product for health, healing and happiness — all while benefitting an underserved community — me!

I’m thinking I’ll sell more product if I can pinpoint exactly what it’s so super for. Maybe I’ll search for a berryseed that curtails lethargy in women. What a lofty, pro-planet goal! When my superfood cures this debilitating symptom, women will have enough energy to make the same wages as men. Yessss! After the Bhutanese women spend a few back-breaking seasons picking and harvesting my berryseeds, lethargy in women and income inequality will be totally eradicated! First I’ll empower the Bhutanese women — then I’ll empower every woman on the planet! Watch out, world! Women are coming to save humanity from Greedy Guy Syndrome!

Well, I better get packing. Let’s see … gardening gloves, mini shovel, BPA-free container for my berryseeds and, oh yeah, my Dzongkha Bhutanese dictionary. I wouldn’t want to say anything culturally insensitive when I demand access to my berryseeds. I want the Bhutanese people to know I understand and respect them — that we’re all equals on this sacred planet. Well, except for women. But with my berryseed twofer, we’ll be one soon enough.

Saving womankind feels great! I don’t know why I waited so long! Really, you should try it! But pick another country for your superfood. Bhutan’s mine.

Main photo: Why stop at superfoods like blueberries when you can invent new ones? Credit: Nolan Hester

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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Mulligatawny soup with kombucha squash served with a red cabbage, apple and carrot salad. Credit: Carole Murko

Honor thy food? I thought I already did that. Food had always been the centerpiece of my existence. I am half Italian. It’s what we talk about. What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What are you cooking for dinner? That was before the life-changing green juice and Rice Biriyani.

I didn’t think I needed to do anything differently. Since childhood, we always ate together as a family. Everything was cooked from scratch with the finest ingredients. We had a garden then, and now I have my own. I laughed when I learned about the Slow Food movement because I had already lived that. Food and family were so central that I created Heirloom Meals, a storytelling platform to share our connection with family recipes, heritage, stories and tips. Who ate better than my family? We had balanced meals with meats, vegetables and a starch. A simple dessert topped it off.

Then food-related allergies struck. My husband Jim developed celiac disease. I became a student of gluten-free cooking and adapted recipes so Jim could eat without noticing a limitation. All was well until I developed stomach issues, the kind the pharmaceutical industry has convinced us can be cured with a pop of a pill.

Intuitively, I knew a change of diet could cure my acid reflux, but adding more dietary restrictions was daunting. I tried eliminating certain foods but eventually cheese and crackers would appear in my shopping cart. I love cheese and crackers. And coffee. How could I give up my morning elixir?

Yet I hadn’t felt quite right, and I questioned why. I ate almost 100% organic foods. I had grass-fed meats, pasture-raised chickens and wild fish. We were gluten-free and had lots vegetables. Why didn’t I feel 100% great?

In early February, I was lucky to be introduced to Nancy Lee, a local herbalist, private ayurvedic, and macrobiotic chef and healer. She was exactly what I needed. I was coming off flu and did not have the energy to embrace a new diet and cooking regime alone. Lee’s program included her coming to my house and cooking one meal a day with me. So I thought, “I want to do this.” What I got was so much more than a cleanse. I learned about eating and spirituality.

Lesson No. 1

Chewing one’s food seems like a simple and basic principle of eating. I never gave it much thought. I’ve always been a speedy eater. I love my food hot. I can’t stand lukewarm food, and I have spent my life inhaling meals. Lee’s first lesson: Digestion begins in your mouth. The word “mastication” popped into my head. M-a-s-t-i-c-a-t-i-o-n.  Hmmmmm … I don’t really chew my food. There is problem No. 1. I don’t even think about chewing. I just experience the flavors as quickly as possible and swallow.

Although I’m deeply grateful for the wonderful food I eat, I have never taken much time to pray over it. I hadn’t looked at the food and imagined how it will nourish and heal my body. I viewed food as the enemy for much of my life. I bought into the media’s view of the perfect woman. I sought a lithe, fit body. It never occurred to me that stopping or pausing before diving into a meal would awaken me to a food experience I had never had. I learned I had been living a warped food contradiction: I loved to make delicious food to nourish others but secretly despised that same food.

Lesson No. 2

Honor your food. Next, chew it. Check, check. The act of eating has become a spiritual experience. I’ve become present with the food. I understand that food has a life essence and energy and that certain foods cleanse and heal organs. The philosophy of honoring our food and treating our bodies with absolute reverence is vital.

My cleanse and restorative regime focused on my digestion, my heart and my hormones. We ate many and varied foods, and we drank three infusions: nettle, red clover and oat straw. Imagine drinking an infusion of red clover, nettles or oat straw every day and allowing them to pack a vitamin and nutritional punch in the most soothing way. Red clover purifies the blood and lowers bad cholesterol. It also is a great source of calcium, magnesium and vitamin C. Oat straw is known to reduce cholesterol, increase libido and strengthen nerves. According to herbalist Susan Weed, 1 cup of oat straw infusion contains 300 milligrams of calcium. Swigging a nettle infusion is said to strengthen bones, thicken hair, clarify skin, ease seasonal allergy symptoms and ease  GERD.

Combined with a green juice in the morning and lunches of such dishes as kichari, Rice Biriyani and mulligatawny soup with sides of steamed carrots, burdock root and daikon radish, and some form of salad, the cleanse was beyond successful.

I am off coffee. People comment that I look 10 years younger. My energy is even throughout the day and I feel happy.

Sample Menu: — Steamed carrots, burdock root, daikon and squash with brown rice and a pressed cabbage salad with sesame seeds.

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Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis / iStockphoto

Peggy Neu knows Meatless Monday is an easy way to reduce meat without a lot of sacrifice. But what happens when Meatless Monday and Memorial Day converge? What about the sizzling barbecue ribs? What about pleasing a holiday crowd with varying tastes? What about the kids?

Neu sees an opportunity.

She’s president of The Monday Campaigns, and when she spoke about the growth of Meatless Monday this spring at TEDxManhattan, she told the crowd that research shows that people tend to see Monday as a chance for a fresh start. With respect to health, people are more likely to make a change Monday than any other day. A study of health-related Google searches over a multiyear period showed a consistent pattern of Monday spikes. “It’s kind of like a mini New Year’s, but you get 52 chances to stay on track,” Neu said.

AUTHOR


Pam WeiszPam Weisz is Deputy Director of Change Food,  a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

Isn’t New Year’s more pleasurable? That’s exactly Neu’s hope for Meatless Monday. At TEDxManhattan, she said that it’s important to make the day “a fun ritual, something that people look forward to” and to approach it as “choice and moderation, giving people vegetarian choices rather than taking something (meat) away.”

So if it’s sizzle you want from your barbecue, there are plenty of cool ways to grill vegetables too. (See tips at the end of this story.) If it’s variety you crave, former Meatless Monday Web editor Tami O’Neill suggested “know when you won’t notice,” as in that freshly wrapped burrito or five-alarm chili in which the flavor might be just as wonderful without packing in the meat.

For kids, the fun particularly matters. Some tips from Meatless Monday include:

– Let kids choose a fruit or vegetable to include in a Meatless Monday dinner. They can help research how to prepare it.

– Involve kids in cooking. Their participation will vary depending on age and ability, but cooking is fun and preparing new foods helps demystify them.

The Monday Campaigns has a site filled with tips for cooking with kids, recipes for different ages and other resources at www.thekidscookmonday.org.

The idea behind Meatless Monday is simple. Launched in 2003 as a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, it asks people to give up meat one day a week, and the name tells you what to do and when to do it.

There’s plenty of science to support the concept. Cutting down on meat can help reduce the risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. There are also environmental benefits. Meat production uses vast quantities of both fossil fuels and water; and industrial agriculture, which produces the bulk of the meat sold in the U.S., is linked to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, and other environmental ills.

Meatless Monday’s reach is global. It has since been adopted across the U.S. and in 30 countries. Restaurants, school districts and media outlets such as the Food Network, Self and Prevention have signed on, offering special Meatless Monday menus and recipes. Celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Padma Lakshmi, Al Gore and Paul McCartney have endorsed the campaign.

“To me, though, the most powerful aspect of Monday as a behavior-change idea is that we can do it together,” Neu told the audience at TEDxManhattan. “How cool is it that this Monday there are going to be people in Iran that will be doing a Meatless Monday and they’re going to do it because they share the same goals, to be healthier and to have a healthier planet. … I think sometimes by synchronizing even simple actions, we can synchronize our hearts and our minds around bigger ideals.”

(See Neu’s TEDxManhattan talk below on YouTube.)

The Meatless Monday website offers an abundance of recipes, searchable by category or ingredients. Numerous food and health websites, bloggers and others also feature Meatless Monday recipes on a regular basis.

Vegetarian grilling tips for Meatless Monday

For those pondering how Meatless Monday can mesh with barbecues as summer begins, The Monday Campaigns offers a list of grilling tips, including:

1. Many vegetables can be thrown right on the grill with just a light brushing of olive oil (with delicious results)! Fresh corn, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, squash and bell peppers are just some to try.

2. Kabobs are a barbecue staple that make the perfect meatless entree. Add tofu cubes, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted potatoes or just about any other vegetable that strikes your fancy.

3. Grilled fruit is amazing too. For a sweet side dish or dessert, try peaches, pineapples, plums, melons, kiwis, pears or figs with a touch of honey marinade.

4. Swap a hamburger for a portobello mushroom burger or grilled eggplant slices. Put the barbecued veggies on a bun and add your favorite toppings, such as avocados, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers or an olive spread.

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

Peggy Neu at TEDxManhattan. Credit: Screenshot from TEDxManhattan on YouTube.com

5. Try a veggie burger recipe that celebrates hearty ingredients such as black beans, lentils, quinoa and chickpeas. You can also find healthy pre-made patties at supermarkets and natural food stores.

6. Make a delicious, smoky pizza pie right on the grill — all you need is pizza dough, sauce and your favorite vegetables thinly sliced or pre-grilled.

7. Use your favorite marinade recipe to add flavor to extra firm tofu cubes. Grill them up and add them to a salad, serve them with veggies or enjoy them on their own.

8. Add grilled vegetables to a filling summer salad. Garnish fresh lettuces with a bit of fruit, feta cheese and olive oil to complete the dish; or think beyond lettuce and concoct a bean or grain salad.

9. Consider your sides when planning a meatless barbecue. Pasta salads, raw vegetables and hummus dip are great ways to turn your plant-based dishes into a full meal.

10. End the meal on a healthy note with a tray of fresh fruit, a parfait or homemade smoothies.

Trying new recipes and methods of cooking can help turn Meatless Monday into an opportunity to add variety to your diet and explore new tastes. At the same time, as Neu said, “You can draw inspiration and feel part of a larger movement trying to improve our health and the health of the planet.”

Main photo: Grilled vegetables to light up a Meatless Memorial Day. Credit: Sarsmis/iStockphoto

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Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body's insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Sun, Sea & Olives: Start your day with bacon and lose 10 pounds?

That’s what a self-styled dietary expert writing in The Wall Street Journal says happened to her. And, she suggests, it could happen to you too. Just get over your obsession, and your doc’s obsession, with avoiding saturated fat. The kind in bacon, burgers, butter and several other ingredients that do not start with the letter B. Eat the fat and cut the carbs. Totally.

Aolives

These and similar conclusions have been trumpeted recently in the national media, from NPR to Fox News to The New York Times, and often with more than a hint of triumph attached. They are based on a much-criticized report, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, of a mega-analysis that concludes: “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”

The news on saturated fat can be misleading

This is not exactly saying saturated fat is good for you, but you wouldn’t guess that from what’s being pronounced. Authors of the analysis itself are a bit more cautious: Saturated fat is neither beneficial nor is it harmful, according to Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of several co-authors of the study. It all depends on what it replaces. “Compared to polyunsaturated fat from vegetable oils, saturated fat is clearly more harmful to the heart,” Mozaffarian told an interviewer.

So hang on a minute — let’s see what this is all about. First of all, the reported conclusion is hardly news. Already in 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported, another meta-analysis questioned the association of saturated fat with heart disease risk. “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (congestive heart disease) or (cardiovascular disease),” concluded the report. “More data are needed to elucidate whether (cardiovascular disease) risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.”

So why is it news now? I can’t answer that question.

But the most recent analysis has a number of problems, and not just of interpretation. Dr. David Katz of Yale’s Prevention Research Center called The Wall Street Journal article “reheated leftover nonsense,” and pointed out that nowhere in the Annals report does it say that saturated fat is harmless or beneficial. In any case, he asks rhetorically, “Is lack of harm really the new standard in healthful eating? … I thought we might actually be interested in food that was genuinely good for us.”

Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto-based registered dietician, concurs and points out further that there is a strong and to date irrefutable relationship between consumption of lots of red meat and the risk of colon cancer. And if you still want to switch to a diet of beef ‘n’ bacon, Schwartz says, be aware of the ways different fats affect insulin sensitivity. Insulin resistance, which increases with age, weight gain and lack of exercise, leads almost inevitably to Type 2 diabetes. Saturated fat from meat and dairy products, according to a recent Spanish study, decreases insulin sensitivity, meaning it promotes insulin resistance; oleic acid, on the other hand, the predominant fat in olive oil, has the opposite effect.

These findings, Schwartz notes, are another victory for the Mediterranean diet, which treats meat as a minor part of total calories, often simply as a garnish to a dish of beans, pasta, vegetables or all three mixed together with some extra virgin olive oil. (You can follow more of this discussion on Schwartz’s website, Enlightened Eater.)

Speaking of the Mediterranean diet, I should add that the man who first identified the good health outcomes of a traditional Mediterranean diet, the late Dr. Ancel Keys, has become a whipping boy for the anti-carb crusaders who accuse him of promoting a devastating anti-fat campaign that has led us to our present predicament. After decades of anti-fat messages, the argument goes, Americans have become fatter and unhealthier than ever and it’s all the fault of Keys, who promoted low-fat diets as a cure for heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet centers on eating a varied diet of vegetables, fruits, seafood, legumes and healthy fats. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

The Mediterranean diet centers on eating vegetables, fruits, seafood, legumes and healthy fats. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Nothing could be further from the truth. Keys was well aware that the Mediterranean populations his research team investigated on the island of Crete and in southern Italy were hardly members of the low-fat brigade. Indeed, the Cretan population at the time got a whopping 45 percent of its calories from fat. But it was a very particular fat, mostly olive oil and mostly extra virgin.

So why, then, the increase in obesity, diabetes and concomitant problems in recent decades? Because it seems to be related to diets of increased carbohydrates and decreased fats, should we simply switch categories, increasing fats and decreasing carbs? Not so fast. First of all, well-grounded research shows that although the percentage of calories from fat has decreased in the average American diet, the actual quantity of fat consumed has remained the same. You don’t need a graduate degree in statistics to understand why: The total amount of calories consumed has gone way, way up.

Stephan Guyenet of Whole Health Source, a well-regarded website, used statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service to show that U.S. average dietary consumption increased between 1960 and 2009 by 363 calories per day. That alone is enough to account for the present predicament. Keys can rest comfortably in his grave, knowing his recommendations to follow a Mediterranean-style diet are still completely valid and have nothing to do with the low-fat mantra.

And what does that mean? The Mediterranean diet is not one single element but rather a holistic pattern that includes a variety of ingredients — vegetables, fruits, legumes, seafood, small quantities of meat and dairy products, a primary fat in olive oil — and from this we should be eating a wide variety. Maybe put butter on your toast one morning and extra virgin olive oil (my own preferred condiment — think bruschetta) the next. Or have a burger for dinner one night, a piece of fish the next and a big bowl of steamed greens with beans on a third.

In the end, however, the solution is simple: Get into the kitchen and cook!

Main photo: Beef and other foods high in saturated fat can affect your body’s insulin resistance, which can cause Type 2 diabetes. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

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Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

Fresh local berries in season are a fleeting pleasure in most regions, and until we can virtually reach through the computer screen and grab them off the bush, the choice will come down to frozen berries or imports from faraway. If they’re not kept cool enough, fresh berries shipped long distances can lose important phytonutrients. Unless you’re up for interrogating suppliers, frozen berries are likely your best option, depending on how they’re frozen and thawed.

Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University and a berry lover, shares her thoughts on selecting berries when they’re out of season.

How to select and use frozen berries

1. Reject blobs. Have you ever noticed that some packages of frozen berries feel like one big blob while in others, the berries run freely, resembling a sackful of M&Ms? When berries are frozen en masse, they surrender some of their phytonutrients to the moisture that becomes the blob, says Lila.

What you want are IQF berries — individually quick frozen, meaning they’re laid out on a large tray, berry by berry, and then frozen, a process that retains their healthy compounds, keeps them in singular form and thus makes them easier to thaw. How you thaw is crucial.

2. Defrost only the amount you’re planning to eat, consume them the same day and don’t refreeze them, Lila says. “Minimal handling helps the berries retain their ‘ just picked’  flavor and health protective components.”

3. Thaw berries quickly. A long, slow thaw in the fridge or on the counter activates enzymes that start to degrade phytonutrients, she says.

Lila suggests popping a small amount of frozen berries into the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds max just to get the frost off.  She then throws them into her hot morning oatmeal. “The microwave can be devastating if overdone,” she says, so keep the temperature moderate and cooking time short.

4. Gently warm frozen berries on the stovetop, using a double boiler or placing them directly into a pot or pan and stirring continuously so they don’t scorch. A little bit of heat actually breaks down some of the healthy components so they get into your bloodstream faster, Lila says. Again, keep the process short and avoid high heat.

5. Consume the colorful juices left behind. They contain important water-soluble phytonutrients — including anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives berries their red, blue and purple to blackish hues. In nature, anthocyanins protect plants from enemies such as insects and ultraviolet radiation, Lila explained on “The Dr. Oz Show.” In your body, they go straight to your large intestine, where they work with berry fiber and good gut bacteria to fight inflammation.

Lila’s new research suggests that eating berries — any berries — before or after exercising will increase the ability of those anthocyanins to fight inflammation. Her new research also shows that berries have some healthy fat soluble compounds as well, so eat them with a few nuts.

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on "The Dr. Oz Show." Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

TV screenshot of Mary Ann Lila on “The Dr. Oz Show.” Credit: Courtesy of the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute

6. How to select and use dried berries.

Dried berries range from the traditional shriveled fruits to the new berries on the block, berry powders and freeze-dried whole fruits.

The traditional dried fruits — the tiny versions dehydrated in the sun — are highly concentrated in natural sugars, and many companies add glucose or other sweeteners. Choose wisely and eat dried fruits in moderation. Wild gojis from the Gobi, for example, are a good option because they’re not sweet and are dense in phytonutrients. All wild berries, if picked when ripe, usually beat out domesticated ones when it comes to producing healthy compounds, says Lila, because wild berries have to struggle in nature on their own, without human help.

Berry powders vary in quality, says Lila, depending on how they’re made. Often they’re spray dried, a process that uses gas to break down the fruits and destroys many phytonutrients.

Whole berries, on the other hand, are freeze-dried, which simply removes the water and retains all the good properties. “It’s the best way to preserve polyphenols,” Lila says. But the sugars become very concentrated and the process is expensive, making them a risky option for anyone with a sweet tooth and an addiction gene.

That would be me. As far as I’m concerned, the best thing about picking frozen berries is that I’m forced to control an unwavering urge to nosh. Have you ever tried biting into an icy fruit?

Main photo: Mary Ann Lila, with colleague Sally Gustafson, at North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute. Credit: Courtesy of Plants for Human Health Institute

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