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Paleolithic musings

Have you noticed the deluge of Paleo books flooding the market today? Do you know what Paleo nutrition is? Did our hunter/gatherer ancestors do more hunting than gathering? Were they hyper-carnivores? Did a large percent of their daily energy needs come from meat? Should we eat like that today?

Yes? No?

Maybe?

Holy mastodon, what are modern humans to do? It’s confusing.

Channel your inner-caveman, grab a drumstick, and let’s unleash the past. On second thought, grab a bowl of baked beans or some goat yogurt, because I’m going to propose we’ve overestimated Paleolithic meat consumption and that, long term, the Paleo diet isn’t the best choice.

But first, a disclaimer and a friendship flag. I’m no evolutionary biologist. I can’t tell you the historical time-lines of different populations, or even who the populations were. Neanderthals, sapiens, upper-lower-middle Paleolithic, pre-Neolithic?

Or who was where? Northern Europe, west Asia, the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Bronx?

In order to propose a specific behavior (archeologically speaking), you need to know what you’re talking about. You also need to have a sound understanding of historical perspective and some scientific evidence. Like cave drawings of ancient BBQs, stone-age meat cleavers, or a well-preserved Neanderthal clutching a mastodon femur. I don’t have any of the above. No artifacts, no fossils, very little knowledge of the time period.

I’m also of the notion that one-sized diet doesn’t fit all. Now or 200,000 years ago, so each to their own.

But, if we’re honest, our fragmented knowledge of the Paleolithic era doesn’t clearly indicate who ate what when. There’s a wide range of possibilities with a zillion variables. If we sift through the research, there’s evidence of fossilized plant particles and starch grains embedded in Neanderthal dental plaque, meaning they ate a variety of plants, including legumes and tubers. Ancient encampments are often littered with animal remains (bones), which gives the impression that early humans ate a lot of meat. But if you think about it, there’s not much evidence to leave behind if you’re a plant. Bones survive thousands of years, plants don’t — they decompose. It’s like searching for an ice cube after it melts. How do we know the Paleo diet wasn’t predominately plant-based, with a little meat thrown in on rare occasions? Recent research is suggesting that theory might be closer to fact than all the hoopla about the caveman diet.

My ancestors ate a plant-based diet, with a little meat when they happened upon fresh road kill, a slow rabbit, or whatever else was around during that time period. I doubt meat was a major source of energy. Since I can’t text my ancestors and ask, this is obviously speculation. For an older post I wrote on this and my thoughts on Paleo and how HLA DQ2 genes add to the mix, please read “Confessions of an HLA DQ2 Cave Woman.”

To make this information easier to “digest,” I’m simply going to compare the modern Paleo diet to what people who currently live the longest eat (Blue Zone communities, see below for details and references). Yes, you could say this is simplistic, misleading, and doesn’t do justice to the Paleo diet. I agree to some extent, but there are too many variables (individual biochemistry, unique gut ecology, genetics, lifestyle, outlook on life, activity levels, food quality, etc.) and not enough accurate historical information to give the Paleo diet a science-based thumbs up or thumbs down. Having said that, I’m not a fan.

Sample 1-day 2200 kcal Paleo menu (“The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based Upon Paleolithic Food Groups.” Loren Cordain, PhD, Department of Health and Exercise Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado)

Breakfast
Cantaloupe, broiled Atlantic salmon

Lunch
Vegetable salad with walnuts (shredded Romaine lettuce, sliced carrot, sliced cucumber, quartered tomatoes, lemon juice dressing, walnuts), broiled lean pork loin

Dinner
Vegetable avocado/almond salad (shredded mixed greens, tomato, avocado, slivered almonds, sliced red onion, lemon juice dressing), steamed broccoli, lean beef sirloin tip roast

Dessert
Strawberries

Snacks
Orange, carrot sticks, celery sticks

According to Loren Cordain, macronutrient percentages for a contemporary (2200 kcal) diet based on Paleo food groups (meats, seafood, nuts/seeds, fruits, vegetables) should be:
38 % Protein
23 % Carbohydrate
39% Fat
Food groups not included in Cordain’s version of the Paleo diet are: grains, dairy, dried beans, legumes

Sample 1 day 1900 kcal Blue Zone menu (this is an estimated compilation of several global Blue Zone diets, which are all similar in content)

Breakfast
Herbal tea with honey, corn bread, fruit, goat milk or yogurt

Lunch
Rice and beans, garlic, onions, large green salad

Dinner
Stir fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, spicy curries, red wine

Snacks
Vegetables, orange, nuts/seeds

According to Dan Buettner, longevity researcher and author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, the typical food groups of Blue Zone inhabitants include: grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, limited dairy (from local goats, for example), small amounts of meat or fish on rare occasions, red wine.

Although neither way of eating includes processed foods, junk food, or fast food, they are quite different in macronutrient composition. One is animal protein heavy (Paleo) and one is unrefined carbohydrate heavy (Blue Zone). Paleo doesn’t include grains or legumes, Blue Zone meals regularly include beans, corn, rice, lentils.

There’s a lot more to the longevity story than diet alone. I’ll focus on that another time, this post is about food alone.

So, what do you think? Paleo or plant-based?

Peace, love, and each to their own.
Melissa

References (aside from my own way of intuitive eating)

Blaser, Martin, et al. “What are the consequences of the disappearing human microbiota?” Nature: Reviews Microbiology, December, 2009.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society, Washington DC, 2012.

Cordain, Loren. “The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based on Paleolithic Food Groups.” JANA, Vol. 5, No. 3.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2005.

Hardy, Karen, et al. “Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.” Naturwissenschaften Journal, Vol. 99, Issue 8.

Henry, Amanda, et al. “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets.” PNAS, November 12, 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/2/486.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

Old news and hot trends for 2013

I’ve been contemplating a post on the highlights and lowlights of 2012 and what I think the hot trends in health, nutrition, and food will be for 2013, but I’ve had trouble putting it all together. It’s not easy to take internal chit-chat and make it into a concise list. Plus, I don’t like conflict and many of my lowlights are “in vogue” and my predicted trends aren’t all that trendy. I probably can’t call them “trends” if I’m alone on the bandwagon.

What to do?

We made it through another presidential election and we survived the Mayan Apocalypse, so I’m guessing you (my loyal readers) can endure my non-objective, totally biased, opinionated views of what’s going on in the world of food and health.

Here’s what I consider the highlights and lowlights of 2012 and my trends for 2013. This is the abridged version. If there’s anything you’d like me to expand on, please let me know in the comment section and if there’s enough interest, I’ll do a whole post on it.

Highlights of 2012 in no particular order
1. Gluten-free becomes mainstream
2. Increased awareness of non-celiac, gluten sensitivity
3. Pressure to label genetically modified foods
4. Research indicating the importance of a diverse and healthy microbiome (check here for details)
5. The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition & Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance & and Active Gluten Free Life is released (obviously a highlight for me)
6. An appreciation and focus on farmers, sustainability, and local food
7. Increased awareness of unhealthy food industry practices and factory farming
8. Perceptions are changing regarding cholesterol levels and the importance of healthy fats
9. Lots of choices when it comes to food and nutrition philosophies, one size doesn’t fit all
10. Hearty greens take center stage

Low-lights of 2012 in no particular order
1. Gluten-free becomes mainstream (the good, the bad, and the ugly)
2. Dr. Oz and his over-the-top, magic, fat-busting claims
3. Dr. Mercola and his scary, hyped-up marketing tactics
4. Dr. Davis (Wheat Belly) goes too far with his “wheat equals crack” campaign and becomes joke fodder for Stephen Colbert
5. American’s consumed 1 billion pounds of beef at McDonald’s in 2012
6. Hospital food — my mom was served white bread, this sherbet, and Ensure upon admission (she had diabetes)


7. Dunkin’ Donuts test markets gluten-free donuts
8. Lance Armstrong
9. Too many supplement choices, drug options, ridiculous diets, and “super foods”
10. Low-quality, fast food on every corner, marketing to kids

Food and nutrition trends for 2013
1. Increase in personal genetic testing: epigenetics, nutrigenomics, and a focus on how genetics influence individual health traits, disease risk, carrier status, reactions to medications, ancestry, food likes and dislikes, etc. (I had this done, very interesting)
2. Consumers seek organic, non-GMO, local food
3. Less meat, more plant-based eating
4. The “bacon in everything” trend is over
5. The US has plenty of its own super foods, no need to resort to exotic Himalayan or Rainforest plants
6. Old fashioned oats (certified gluten-free) and dried heirloom/heritage beans make a high-protein comeback
7. Made-from-scratch food is in, processed food is out
8. Chefs take charge of their own health, lead by example
9. Gardening, walking, nature, exercise, quality sleep, whole foods, and a good attitude are in, whining about what you can’t eat is out
10. Basic “recipes” for longevity are in, exaggerated health claims are out

Next up, a recipe and the winner of a big bag of gluten-free oat bran from my farmer friends in Montana. If you haven’t entered to win, check out my “oat bran power bar and giveaway” post and leave me a comment.

Wishing you peace, love, and good joo-joo in 2013!
Melissa
Image of Evgenia Antipova still life painting from WikiMedia Commons

gluten-free pumpkin pie coffee cake

I had a post on anemia in the works, complete with details on the structure, function, and production of red blood cells, but I got sidetracked by coffee cake. Iron-poor blood will have to wait. This cake is that good. Plus, it fits in with a study I read this morning.

It’s the holidays and this time of year often triggers an uptick in anxiety-related behavior. Cake is comfort food. Did you go to Target or Best Buy on Black Friday? Did your Thanksgiving dinner look more like a Woody Allen movie than a Norman Rockwell painting? Are you stressed about work, money, politics, the weather?

Here, have a piece of cake.

And guess what? A bunch of researchers (17 scientists) put together a collective study and concluded that, “…the hedonic and rewarding properties of palatable foods have stress-buffering actions across numerous effector pathways (neuroendocrine, behavioral, and the sympathetic nervous system).”

Hedonic?

Apparently our HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical) axis and the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system lights up (neuro-nirvana) with the intake of “hedonic” food (i.e. cake). We’re being rewarded for eating fat and sugar. The study states that, “Indeed, comfort food intake in humans is linked with improved emotional states….”

Really? It took 17 scientists to confirm that we want cake, cookies, and ice cream when we’re stressed?

Since I’m in the Christmas spirit and this coffee cake is so divine, I won’t belabor the unintended consequences of overeating hedonic (sorry, that word is just too much fun) food for stress relief.

Yes, we know that binging on sweets is not a good idea. But who reaches for bok choy or burdock root when they’re stressed?  And, yes, we know that eating high fat, high carb food can lead to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and blah-blah-blah.

Let’s put all that aside for now, take this one bite at a time, and enjoy the holidays responsibly. I’m for baking an occasional treat, sharing it with friends and family, and not over-indulging. I created this coffee cake recipe for a holiday brunch I’m having on Christmas day. When I perfected the recipe on my third try, I gave half of it to my neighbors (reluctantly). When I make it next time, I’ll have lots of people to share it with. I’m taking protective measures, but I still plan to enjoy a little hedonic buzz now and then.

Gluten-free pumpkin pie coffee cake
What you need

Coffee Cake
2 – 1/2 cups Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix
1 cup pumpkin pie mix (I used Farmer’s Market Organic Pumpkin Pie Mix)
1/2 cup light coconut milk (I used Native Forest Organic Light Coconut Milk)
2 large eggs (these were my CSA pastured eggs from Grant Farms)
1/4 cup organic turbinado sugar *
1/4 cup organic butter, melted
1 – 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (I used Savory Spice Shop’s salt-free pumpkin pie spice)
1 teaspoon vanilla (I used Madagascar vanilla)

Streusel Topping
1/2 cup Pamela’s Baking and Pancake Mix
1/2 cup turbinado sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, chilled

What you do
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 9 x 9 inch square baking pan (I used a dark 9 x 9 inch square baking pan).
2. Place Pamela’s mix and the pumpkin pie spice in a medium bowl. Whisk to blend the two dry ingredients.
3. Beat butter and sugar together on medium speed, about 30 seconds, until creamy. Add eggs, vanilla, coconut milk, and pumpkin pie mix and continue mixing on low, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
4. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix on low until well blended.
5. Spoon into baking pan and spread evenly. You may need to use a wet knife to spread the batter.
6. To prepare the streusel topping: Place Pamela’s mix, turbinado sugar, and chopped pecans in a medium bowl. Stir to mix. Cut in chilled butter (I use a cheese grater) and mix well. Sprinkle over batter.
7. Place coffee cake on center rack of oven and bake for 45 minutes. Check after 20 to 30 minutes and cover loosely with foil if the streusel starts over-browning (it will, so watch it). You want it nicely browned, not burned.
8. Cool slightly and serve. You can make this a day ahead if you’d like. It’s almost better the next day.

* Organic Turbinado sugar, also called raw cane sugar, is made by the first crushing of freshly-cut sugar cane. It’s still sugar, but less refined and grown organically. The crystals are larger and crunchier and have a molasses flavor to them. Molasses is a byproduct of the process and retained in Turbinado sugar. It’s perfect for streusel topping.

Peace, love, and hedonic food (in small doses on special occasions).
Melissa

Take the inner space test (dare you)

Heart anatomy

Gil Hedley calls himself a somanaut. Like an astronaut who navigates outer space, a somanaut is dedicated to exploring the inner space that makes us the magical human beings that we are. I’ve taken workshops from Gil in the past and he’s an off-beat, charming, and brilliant anatomist. Check out “fuzz, food, inflammation, and movement” for a blog post I did on Gil, inflammation, and inner space several years ago. That post includes his famous Fuzz Video, which is definitely worth watching.

My last two posts were on bacterial inner space (see links below) and this post tops off the series with a test to see how good your interoceptive skills are. In other words, how well you know your inner space.

Ready?

Grab yourself a stopwatch and a calculator (unless you’re a math wizard and can do this in your head). Sit quietly in a comfortable chair with your hands resting in your lap or on your thighs. Don’t cross your legs. Take a few deep breaths and relax. Start the stopwatch and count your heartbeats by feeling your heart’s rhythm for one minute. Don’t touch your neck (carotid artery), your wrist (radial artery), or your heart—just sense when your heart beats and keep track of the number. Write the number down.

Now, using your fingers (preferably your index and middle finger), find your pulse on the inside of your wrist. Don’t use your thumb, as it has its own pulse. You can also find your pulse on either side of your neck. Use whichever one works best for you and count the beats for one minute in the normal way (using your fingers). Wait a couple of minutes and do it again for one minute using your fingers. Average the two measurements in which you used your fingers to monitor your pulse.

Calculate the difference between your heartbeat estimate and the average of your two pulse counts using your fingers. Take the absolute value of the difference—you don’t need to know whether you overshot or undercounted, just the amount by which you missed the mark. Then divide by your average pulse and subtract that result from 1. Here’s the formula.

Interpreting your score:

If your result was 0.80 or higher, your interoceptive abilities are awesome. A score of 0.60 to 0.79 means you have a moderately good sense of your inner space. A result below 0.59 indicates that you need to work on getting to know yourself a little better.

I say this often, but the more you understand what’s going on inside, the more likely you are to take good care of your inner space. Your body is a temple, go inside and check it out. It’s magical.

You might also like:
How much of you is really you
Talking bacteria and disease fighting veggies

Peace, love, and inner space.
Melissa

• Use of the above You Are Here letterpress print by Roll & Tumble Press courtesy of Street Anatomy (Anatomy & Pop Culture Gallery Store). Print available here.
• Interoceptive testing formula found in Scientific American MIND, May/June 2012.

Talking bacteria and disease-fighting veggies

Even though I have a blog category called Super Foods, I don’t believe the astonishing claims of “super food” products (powders, pulps, supplements, etc.). The açaí trend is an example. There’s no science behind the claim that açaí powder can reverse diabetes, defeat cancer, help you lose weight, or increase boy-part prowess in older men. Those over-the-top claims have all been made, but there’s no evidence to back them up.

Geez, like life isn’t tricky enough. Now we have to vet our food for false health claims. If it’s not açaí, it’s Tahitian noni juice, or Himalayan goji berries. Each one of these plants have “medicinal” health benefits, but they aren’t going to cure Alzheimer’s or stop the aging process. There are no magic potions. No silver bullets.

Having said that, I’m a big believer in plant power to help resolve biological imbalances, rejuvenate our inner space, and boost overall health. Processed food, environmental toxins, stress, and poor lifestyle choices increase the risk of disease. The more we understand what’s going on inside (up close and personal, on a cellular level) and the more we focus on the foods that promote vitality and mental clarity, the better we feel. The more radiant we become. Who doesn’t want that?

Did you read my last post? How much of you is really you? If not, check it out as that post, this one, and my next one will all be connected. Last week’s was about bacteria and the importance of keeping our inner bacterial garden healthy and balanced. This post will touch on foods that inhibit disease-causing bacteria and help the “knights in shining armor” keep the cooties in check.

Okay, ready? Put on your geek hat.

Quorum sensing is cell-to-cell texting between bacteria. It’s their version of using a “cell” phone (pun intended) to communicate. But rather than an expensive iPhone, they use chemical signaling molecules to pass information around and gather the troops to do good things or to wreak havoc. Bacteria have an amazing ability to engineer their environment and to impact human health. They’re innately smart, very communicative, and quite creative, so it’s important to have the good guys calling the shots. According to a study in the June 2009 issue of PLoS One, a peer reviewed science journal, the human gut is home to about 9 million unique bacterial genes and once we lose control of proper balance, the s**t hits the fan, so to speak.

Probably the most famous example of quorum sensing is the bioluminescence of fireflies. Did you play with fireflies when you were little? I did, although I had no idea how they turned their little tail lights off and on. Fireflies individually regulate their light, but they receive feedback from the other light flashes around them. Peer pressure encourages them to flash in unison. Photinus pyralis is the firefly bacteria that produces light via chemical signaling (quorum sensing). How cool is that? They definitely glow from the inside out and they do it as a community.

That’s quorum sensing and it’s also how super bugs join forces and discuss how to outsmart antibiotics. It’s how your inner garden becomes overrun by weeds. We don’t want that.

Smart plant guys and gals have discovered that vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, horseradish, garlic, and cabbage (among others) inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, to be exact. MRSA (nasty staph germ) and pseudomonas aeruginosa are smart little critters. They’re becoming antibiotic resistant, which is not good.

Here’s the deal, though. If we eat right, avoid the over-use of antibiotics, and focus on health-promoting plant foods, we’ll at least be tending our internal garden in a positive way. We’re setting ourselves up to have an army of good bacteria working (quorum sensing) on our behalf. Go, good bacteria, go!

So, skip the expensive and exotic “super food” powders, supplements, and elixirs and go eat some broccoli. Plants can be potent therapeutic agents, but you don’t have to go to some far-off rain forest or spend a fortune to boost your internal fire power. Ride your bike down to the local farmer’s market and get yourself some green quorum sensing inhibitors.

Peace, love, and plant power.
Melissa
PS Stay tuned for a simple test to see how well you know yourself.

How much of you is really you?

And how well do you know the you that’s not really you? Or even the you that is you?

For the most part, we’re a highly developed species, but our interoceptive skills aren’t all that great. We’re fairly clueless when it comes to our own bodies.

First things first – the basics.

All living things are made up of cells. Some things, like bacteria, are made up of only one cell. Humans are made up of bazillions of cells and almost every one of those cells contains a complete recipe for making you the unique and quirky person you are. That cellular recipe card is encoded in your DNA, which is that long twisty, twirly, ladder-like molecule you learned about in high school biology. The ingredients for your DNA recipe are organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes, which are organized into genes. We each have about 20,000 genes. I have the gene that codes for green eyes and the one that codes for slightly wavy hair. I also have two genes that code for an increased risk for celiac disease and one that makes me a super taster. You may have the gene that codes for sparkling blue eyes and one that’s the marker for straight hair. Or, you may have hit the jackpot with ACTN3, the “I can run really fast” gene.

That’s us in a genetic nutshell.

Now, on to those one-celled, one-piece-of-DNA bacteria. Bacteria consume stuff (nutrients) from the environment and in some cases, that environmental banquet is us. We have WAY more bacterial cells in our bodies than our own cells – something like 10 times more bacteria cells. Simply put, we have (give or take a few) 100,000 bacteria cells (and genes) in and on us at all times.

Take that one step further and we can conclude that 90% of our cells are from bacteria. Yikes! There’s not much of me that’s really me. I’m just a green-eyed, over-grown petri-dish wearing a cute outfit.

So, we’re just one big tour bus for bacteria. We have some nice passengers and some not-so-nice passengers and it’s important for over-all health to keep this ratio in optimal balance. Our unique buggy environment is called a microbiome and includes all the microbes (and their genetic elements) that have become a part of our internal and external environment. These bacterial genes can profoundly impact the progression of disease – in good ways (protecting us from pathogens), or bad ways (causing infection, inflammation, and disease).

What do good bacteria do?
• Produce enzymes that help us digest, absorb, and assimilate food
• Synthesize vitamin K and other vitamins we can’t make on our own
• Break down carcinogens
• May help metabolize drugs
• Rev up the rate in which intestinal cells regenerate
• Boost immune function and metabolism
• Infants get protective bacteria during birth that help “educate” their immune systems
• Antibiotic use can kill off good bacteria, opening the door to disease

A healthy gut microbiome is akin to a functioning organ, carrying out all kinds of important immune system activities. People with digestive diseases and autoimmune conditions (i.e., celiac, colitis, Crohn’s, IBS, food allergies, environmental sensitivities, etc.) often have funky microbiomes, which can impact energy levels, overall vibrance, immune function, and aging. Researchers are even linking obesity and diabetes to bacterial imbalances.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are sequencing the genomes of almost every strain of bacteria we have and are connecting them to the organs they inhabit (nasal-oral-lungs, skin, gastrointestinal, urogenital).  This new approach to wellness is called medical ecology. Think of your microbiome as a soil system. Without the proper balance of nutrients and microbes in the soil, your garden won’t grow. The more good bacteria we have, the harder it is for bad cooties to take hold and cause problems.

How do we tend the microbial garden?
• Don’t use broad spectrum antibiotics unless absolutely necessary
• Choose organic produce and hormone/antibiotic-free animal products
• Eat fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, etc.)
• Reduce stress, which can impact intestinal health
• Prebiotics (fibers in whole foods) stimulate the growth of good bacteria
• Avoid processed food, junk food, and sugary drinks
• Talk to your health-care practitioner about taking a probiotic supplement
• Eat cruciferous veggies *

* Next up: quorum sensing, broccoli, horseradish, and a test to measure your interoceptive skills. (I know, I apologize. I just can’t help it.)

I promise you a gluten-free donut if you stick with me. =)

Peace, love, and good bacteria.
Melissa

Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons

Anxious to know who won the books?

If you’re uninterested in knowing who won the three books I’m giving away to celebrate May as Celiac Awareness month and you’d like a recipe instead, scroll away. There’s an arugula salad with macadamia nut dressing recipe featured below. It’s a wonderful salad and the dressing makes for a nice diversion from oil and vinegar.

My intention was to do five book giveaway posts in May, but real life got the better of my good intentions and May zipped by much faster than expected. I’ll announce the current winners (three) and save the other books for random giveaways in June and July. It was also my intention to have my little neighbor girl help me pick the winners from the comments you all left, but my gosh, I had a flood of entries and although I couldn’t respond to many of the comments, I did read every word and am blessed to have such articulate and bright blog followers. Thank you.

I decided to resort to random.org to pick the winners. There was no way I could choose fairly. All the answers (and the delightful poems) were so good that everyone deserved to win. How could I pick just one? I couldn’t, so the “True Random Number Service” did it for me.

Drum roll, please.

Book #1: 125 Gluten-Free Vegetarian Recipes by Carol Fenster. This is one of my favorite cookbooks and the “Quinoa Pilaf with Pine Nuts and Dried Fruit” is a standard in my recipe collection. I love it. It’s a multi-use dish that everyone enjoys.
Congratulations to Jody E (comment #14)!

Book #2: Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook by Leslie Cerier. This is a great, easy-to-follow cookbook full of healthy (and tasty) recipes.
Congratulations to Noelle (comment #27)!

Book #3: The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution: How the foods you eat can help you calm your anxious mind, improve your mood & end cravings by Trudy Scott. Wow, this post elicited so many heartfelt comments that I wish I had an Oprah-like pocketbook for giveaways! I’d give everyone a copy of this book. Because of the overwhelming response, Trudy emailed me with the offer to add another copy of her book to the mix. As I mentioned in my original post, I prefer to purchase the items I give away on my blog, rather than solicit products or accept free merchandise. This will be an exception since so many people are in need of help with anxiety (thank you, Trudy).
Congratulations to Renée (comment #35) and Joanie (comment #48)!

I will be contacting the winners via email. Stay tuned for the next round of book giveaways, and in the meantime, enjoy this recipe!

Arugula, grapefruit, avocado, and shaved fennel salad with macadamia nut dressing
what you need

dressing (makes about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup macadamia nuts
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
sea salt

salad (makes 2 servings) 
2 to 3 cups arugula
1 grapefruit, peeled, seeded, and chopped in chunks
1 avocado, sliced
1/3 cup shaved fennel

what you do
1. Assemble the salad in a large bowl.
2. Place macadamia nuts in a food processor and pulse until finely ground.
3. Add the water, lime juice, agave, cumin, and salt to the food processor and pulse until creamy. If it’s too thick for your liking, add more water in very small amounts at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Makes about 3 tablespoons of dressing.
4. Toss 2 to 3 tablespoons of dressing with the salad and serve. Start with a small amount of dressing and adjust to your liking from there. Store extra dressing in refrigerator.

Thanks, everyone!
Melissa

Gluten ataxia and cerebellar juggling

I’m guessing you probably stopped by hoping to find a recipe for something exciting like peanut-butter chocolate cake or frosted cinnamon rolls. Maybe a nice cheesy casserole or a chocolate Easter bunny.

Sorry.

I’ve been sidetracked lately by the dazzling microcircuitry and super-powers of the cerebellum, my favorite brain region. You might want to stick with me on this, especially if you’re curious about the many ways gluten can wreak havoc on your health and derail your Cirque du Soleil ambitions.

Here’s the deal.

Ataxia is a lack of muscular coordination and balance. It’s a loss of precise movement. The main function of the cerebellum is to evaluate how well movements initiated by motor areas of the brain are actually being carried out. It’s responsible for orchestrating muscular action in a controlled way. If the motor areas of the brain aren’t skillfully doing their jobs, the cerebellum detects the discrepancies and via a complex network of feedback signals, attempts to correct the errors.

If you want to ride a unicycle and juggle while being distracted by women in short skirts twirling around on roller skates, you better have a high-functioning cerebellum. Do you remember world-class, short track, speed skating champion, Apolo Ohno? Didn’t it make you a little nervous watching him bumping elbows with the South Koreans while taking corners at high speeds? He was practically horizontal. My gosh, how did he manage to stay upright (at least most of the time)? That kind of movement takes dynamic balance, sensory control, reflex adjustment, and incredible coordination. The cerebellum takes note of everything that’s going on with the body in space and makes instant adaptations to maintain equilibrium.

That’s if nothing is sabotaging its performance (and yours).

This under-appreciated little structure of lobes, white matter, grey matter, and other assorted goodies accounts for only 10% of the brain mass, but contains approximately half the neurons (specialized nerve cells) in the brain. That gives you an idea of how important it is. Researchers are also finding the cerebellum plays a roll in cognitive function and language. There’s a lot going on in that part of the brain.

Now throw some gluten into the mix and you might have problems with even the simplest of movements. Like walking, skipping, catching a slow-moving beach ball, or retrieving a word from the tip of your tongue. Cerebellar ataxia is one of the most common neurological manifestations of gluten intolerance.

Dr. Alessio Fasano, world-renowned celiac specialist and Italian cutie-pie (well, isn’t he?) from the University of Maryland’s Celiac Research Center says, “The gut is not like Las Vegas. What happens in the gut doesn’t stay in the gut.”

Such is the case with gluten ataxia. People with the genetic and environmental susceptibility to gluten ataxia may not even have gastrointestinal symptoms, although the problems begin when gluten hits the small intestine. Unfortunately, the potential for damage doesn’t stay there. It can also have an impact on the brain. Studies show that 60% of patients with gluten ataxia show cerebellar atrophy on MRI. One study I read suggested that prolonged exposure to gluten in people with gluten ataxia was irreversible. Obviously, the sooner the diagnosis, the better. I’m not a doctor (I’m a nutritionist taking ballet lessons), but I believe a healthy gluten-free diet of nourishing whole foods and activities that stimulate cerebellar function can do wonders for people with neurological problems and can be protective for those without.

What kind of activities?

Dance lessons, yoga, tai chi, juggling, tennis—any activity that requires balance, movement, and attention to detail. Even tossing a beach ball back and forth stimulates the movement centers of the brain. Research shows that structural changes occur in the brains of people who engage in activities that require balance and coordination—jugglers, basketball players, speed skaters, dancers. If there is evidence of architectural changes, then why not exercise your cerebellum? Nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Plus, you might have fun in the process. Latin dance lessons? Ballet?

Check out this video of cerebellar rock stars, Bob, Trish, Chip and Laura. It’s short (1:17), fun, and will give you an idea of what it’s like to have a top-notch sense of balance and coordination. This kind of skill takes a lot of dedication and practice and I bet on MRI, these folks would have a blue ribbon network of neurons guiding their movements. They’re exercising their bodies, but they’re giving their brains a workout as well.

Basketball-Juggling Trick Shot (Chip and Laura Edition) with Bob and Trish

Dance, twirl, and exercise your brain. Your cerebellum with thank you.
Melissa

Resources:
• Sultan, F et al., “The cerebellum: Comparative animal studies,” The Cerebellum, 2007; 6: 168–176.
• Hadjivassiliou, M et al., “Gluten Sensitivity: from gut to brain,” Lancet Neural, 2010; 9: 318-330.
• Sapone, A et al., “Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification,” MBC Medicine, 2012; 10: 13.
• “Skaters’ Brains: Specialized training of complex motor skills may induce sports-specific structural changes in the cerebellum,” ScienceDaily, March 26, 2012; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120326112918.htm (accessed March 26, 2012)
• Gerard J. Tortora et al., Principles of Anatomy & Physiology (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003), 462-463, 472.
• William D. McArdle et al., Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance (Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007).

metabolism, weight loss, yoga & flexible genes

Warning: science post, no recipe, bail out now unless you have a curious personality. You know the type. Always asking questions, perpetually wondering, head-in-the-clouds explorer. I’ll post a follow-up recipe to my healthy breakfast series next week, but for now, I’m on a mission.

I’ve gained several pounds over the past few weeks and I did it quite easily, which surprised me. Check here to see why I gained the weight. I’m determined to lose it before it becomes my new normal, but I’ve also been curious as to why I gained it so easily. My eating habits didn’t change that much. My exercise routine was slightly different, but I kept up with my yoga practice.

Are you still with me?

Let’s start at the beginning. Literally.

I love this video from Virginia Hughes at The Last Word On Nothing because it’s short, charming, and incredibly creative. If you want a better understanding of your irregularly arranged DNA and how your unique version of this dynamic, coiled jumble of genes makes you the special (or quirky) person you are, watch this short (less than 2 minutes) video.

(Please scroll down, this isn’t the end of the blog post. Click the start button on the video to watch the magic of DNA coiling. The rest of my rambling continues after the video.)

See? Wasn’t that awesome?

In a nutshell (or nucleus in this case): DNA forms the inherited genetic material found inside our cells. Genes are the hereditary units that form our DNA. Our genes tell our cells how to function and what traits to express.

And guess what? We have some control over that. A good example is the genetic predisposition for celiac disease. Say you have the gene that codes for celiac disease (DQ2 or DQ8), but you live on some isolated island and you’re never exposed to gluten. That gene would not be expressed. It would stay turned off. On the other hand, if you eat a lot of gluten and the stars align, you’ll end up hitting the switch and turning the gene on. I have DQ2 genes and celiac disease, but I’ve been living gluten-free for so long now, I feel like my celiac gene is on dim mode. It’s not turned on, but it’s also not totally turned off either. Eating a big plate of gluten-filled pasta would be the equivalent of hitting the on switch and re-expressing the gene. I don’t want to do that.

On another note, I have this theory that I’ve tweaked a different genetic predisposition of mine in a healthy way and although that’s a good thing, there have been some unintended consequences. We have about 20,000 genes so there’s lots of potential for shenanigans.

Let me explain. That’s if you’re still here.

My mom says I was born running (much to her dismay). I grew up in the 50s and 60s and had they coined the term at that time, I probably would have been called ADD-ish. I rarely sat down long enough to eat a full meal, never took naps, was always fidgeting, ran up and down stairs, twirled, jumped off things, climbed over furniture and so on. If you ask my mom, she’ll say I was a royal pain in the neck.

Jump ahead to the year 2000. I’m hitting midlife, am still very active, but I’ve never really learned to relax. High blood pressure is common in my family and mine had been inching up over the years. Not bad, but it was making a move. I decided I had no desire to express (turn on) that high blood pressure gene that seems so prevalent on my dad’s side of the family. I decided to turn it off by practicing yoga and meditation. And guess what? A decade later, I don’t have high blood pressure, I’m calmer, I don’t fidget as much, and I no longer drive people crazy with my speed walking. Instead, I float around chanting in Sanskrit. No worries. Peace, love, and tie dyes.

One more time, but now jump ahead to 2011. I’m busy co-writing a book* with my friend and colleague Pete Bronski of No Gluten-No Problem, so I sit at my computer for long hours each day. I don’t change my eating habits (which are good for the most part), but my intense hiking, skiing, dog walking, etc. go by the wayside. I’m still committed to yoga, but to keep from being too stressed from my work, I practice a more restorative style. Yikes, I gain 5 or 6 pounds in short order. I’ve never done that before.

Here’s how it happened. I’m in midlife (okay, late midlife, late-late midlife) and I’m now practicing a more calming style of yoga. Both my age and my yoga have contributed to a reduction in my metabolism. That’s the point of yoga—relaxation, lower heart-rate, deeper breathing, lower blood pressure, less caloric need, and hence a lower metabolic rate.

Yikes! The perfect storm. I’m mellow, I don’t fidget, I’m older, I do restorative yoga, and I’m working long hours sitting at my computer. The result is weight gain, even though I’m eating well. And because of my age (which will remain untyped) and the fact that I’ve intentionally shifted my metabolism down a notch with all the yoga, it’s been harder to lose the weight. My muscle to fat ratio has changed. I don’t want these extra pounds to become my new set point, so what can I do?

First off, I can’t get all worked up about it as I have that high blood pressure gene just waiting for an excuse to turn on. I’m continuing with my meditative yoga, but I’m making sure I get a couple of power yoga classes in per week. I’ve added mountain biking into my schedule to boost my metabolism and burn some calories and I’ve added some round-about weight training. I’m not into going to the gym and lifting weights, but I’m aware that I need to build muscle, which is more metabolically active than fat. I do my yoga in the morning, my biking whenever I can, and I’m periodically doing some at-home strength training.

One last thing. I don’t think it’s a big deal to gain a few pounds. I have motivations other than being the “right” weight. I want to do some climbing this summer and I need to be in good shape for that. Extra weight makes climbing 14,000 foot peaks more difficult. Yoga inversions and arm balances are harder on my body if I weigh more. A few pounds makes a difference in the activities that are important to me. If you want to lose weight, you have to evaluate what your genetic predispositions might be, what you eat (quality and quantity), and what you do (sit, stand, run, what type of yoga, etc.) and adjust according to your age and lifestyle factors. Life is definitely an ever-evolving journey.

I promise a breakfast recipe for next week. A nutrient-dense, low calorie one.

Peace, love, and flexible genes!
Melissa

* When I wrote this blog post last March our book had not been released. The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life is now available on Amazon.com and at various bookstores. Yeah!

Are you a supertaster?

What’s a Supertaster, you ask?

Well, I hate to brag, but that would be me. I’m a supertaster. It’s kind of like being Wonder Woman without the warrior princess gadgets. My super powers are in my taste buds, not in indestructible click-click bracelets or projectile tiaras.

Okay, I’ll be honest. It’s not that big of a deal—25% of us are supertasters. We’ve inherited a higher-than-normal number of taste buds and are typically more sensitive to strong, bitter foods. Think raw broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, grapefruit juice, whiskey, wine, dark chocolate, coffee. We don’t like those foods.

Although I have the supertaster genotype, I do like (have come to like) all those choices with the exception of whiskey. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s take a brief look at the genetics behind food dislikes—or variations of that theme. Maybe your kid is a “picky eater” for a reason.

Supertaster’s have cell proteins on their tongues that detect intense, bitter flavors. All genes encode proteins with information from our DNA. I happen to have the gene that is the protein blueprint for an overwhelmingly bitter taste. But what makes all this interesting is the mix of our genes and our personal and environmental variations. I’ve managed to override some of my genetically predisposed, taste quirkiness by tweaking the quality of the food. That, and my willingness to experiment. Some of these bitter foods are incredibly healthy and contain cancer-protective substances, so broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts have become favorites of mine. That’s my phenotype at work. I haven’t turned the gene off, I’ve simply tweaked the stimulus (my food environment) in a positive way to pull a fast one on my supertaster gene.

Let’s take this one step further. By purchasing high quality versions of these foods (fresh, organic) and taking the time to prepare them in a way that accentuates the flavors I that I do like, I end up supplying my body with phytonutrients (plant chemicals) that promote good health. That way, I can get my foot (phytonutrient) in the door (cell) to turn certain other genes off or on. I can discourage disease-promoting genes and encourage health-warrior genes. We have the power to do that.

Back to supertaster foods. I don’t like raw broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower, but I do like all those vegetables drizzled with a small amount of olive oil, dusted with Simply Organic All-Purpose Seasoning, sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and lightly roasted. I don’t like most types of coffee (Starbucks is over-the-top bitter to me) or most types of wine, but I do like my mellow, organic, breakfast blend coffee mixed with a little coconut milk and I love having a glass of nice, smooth red wine. But, a lot of wine does taste bitter and acidic to me, to the point that I literally turn up my nose and shiver. There are only a few dark chocolates that I like and I much prefer them topped with a little sea salt. Grapefruit juice I can totally do without. I’m also a salt-aholic, but only with good quality sea salt. Salt masks bitterness, so it makes sense that supertasters are heavy-handed with the salt grinder.

Are you wondering how I know I’m a supertaster?

I took the test. Researchers have discovered a chemical that, when applied to a strip of paper and placed on the tongue, distinguishes between non-tasters, medium-tasters, and super-tasters. I ordered the test strips and was overwhelmed by the bitter taste. Seriously bitter. I actually thought I’d be a non- or medium-taster because I like most of the foods on the list, but after the test and some thought, I realized that I’ve simply adjusted to being a supertaster. I had a couple of other people take the test and they had absolutely no reaction. None. They didn’t taste anything. I couldn’t believe it as I could hardly stand the taste. Apparently supertasters experience flavors with about three times the intensity of others.

Why do you think some people are supertasters? Is that an evolutionary advantage or a disadvantage?

Say you’re out doing some gathering during the Paleolithic era and you grab a handful of leaves. You take a bite, find the leaves extremely unpleasant, nasty-tasting and bitter, so you spit them out. Maybe you just saved yourself from an untimely death due to ingesting toxic plant chemicals. Good one. I’m glad I’m a supertaster.

But wait, food was scarce back then. You can’t be picky. My non-taster neighbor will eat anything, therefore having more chance of survival when times are tough.

What’s your theory? Are you a supertaster? Is that good or bad?

While you think about it, here’s a recipe for roasted broccoli and cauliflower.

Roasted broccoli and cauliflower
1 cup broccoli florets
1 cup cauliflower florets
2 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
Simply Organic All-Purpose Seasoning (I have nothing to do with this company, I just love this seasoning and use it on everything.)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees
2. Place florets in a medium bowl, drizzle with olive oil and toss to cover. Sprinkle with herb seasoning, sea salt, and pepper. Toss again.
3. Place florets in a shallow baking dish and sprinkled with garlic.
4. Place baking dish on the center rack of oven and roast for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Stir occasionally to insure even browning.

Note: Broccoli stalks are wonderful roasted. All these foods are almost undetectable used raw in small amounts blended into smoothies.

Okay, what do you think? I’m curious. What’s the point of the supertaster gene? Did it evolve as a protective mechanism or was it a detriment to survival?

Peace, love and the wonderful world of genetics!
Melissa

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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(co-written with Pete Bronski)



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