January 16th, 2013 by Melissa
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!
Image of Evgenia Antipova still life painting from WikiMedia Commons
December 12th, 2012 by Melissa
My last post was about iron-deficiency anemia, celiac disease, and iron-rich foods. It came with a heavy dose of red blood cell biology and those of you willing to wade through it, not unsubscribe, and leave a comment at the end were rewarded with an opportunity to win a copy of The Gluten-Free Edge, my sports nutrition book co-written with Peter Bronski.
And the winner is (drum roll, please)—Jennifer R! Thank you all for participating and congratulations to Jennifer.
Since it’s the season for giving, I’m going to keep the giveaway streak going (see details below).
I thought I’d follow up my anemia post with a gluten-free, iron-packed, power-bar recipe that I developed as a homemade alternative to store-bought energy bars. This one is a take-off on an almond meal version featured in the recipe section of The Gluten-Free Edge and is proof that vegetarians (even vegans) can get the iron and protein they need if they do it right.
Gluten-free oat bran power bar (makes 16 servings)
What you need
1/2 cup oat bran (I used Montana Gluten-Free Oat Bran, see details below)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup walnuts
1 cup almonds
1 cup dried, unsulphured apricots, chopped
1/3 cup certified gluten-free oats (I get mine from MT GF Processors or GF Prairie)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (make sure they’re gluten-free)
1/3 cup honey
1 large egg
2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted, plus some to grease the pan
1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla
What you do
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan (I used a dark-colored metal baking pan).
2. Place the oat bran, the cinnamon, and the sea salt in a food processor and pulse until well mixed.
3. Add the walnuts, almonds, apricots, and oats and pulse several times, until the nuts and apricots are in small chunks but not completely ground. Add the chocolate chips and pulse a few times, leaving larger chunks.
4. In a bowl big enough to hold all the ingredients, whisk together the honey, egg, melted coconut oil, and vanilla. Whisk for 1 minute to ensure the ingredients are well mixed.
5. Add the dry (pulsed) ingredients to the wet ingredients and mash together with a fork. Use your hands if you have to and make sure everything is mixed together.
6. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan. Cover with parchment paper and, using your hands, press and flatten evenly. You can also use a flat spatula to even out the mixture. Remove the parchment paper.
7. Place pan on center rack of the oven and bake for 22 to 24 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool. Place the pan in the refrigerator to chill before cutting into bars. Store bars in an airtight container in the fridge, or wrap individually and freeze.
These bars are power-packed with nutrition and great for athletes. They’re high in carbohydrates (great workout fuel), high in protein (for recovery), and super high in iron (building blocks for RBCs, see prior post). The iron is mainly from the oat bran. The bars are also high in fat (another source of workout fuel), but the fat is from healthy sources, so don’t fret. Because of the high fat content, they aren’t low calorie, but if you need a boost while out hiking, biking, or during a mid-afternoon work slump, these power bars will serve you well.
PER SERVING (1 bar): 225 calories; 14 g fat; 22 g carbohydrate; 6 g protein; 3 g fiber
NUTRITION BONUS: 1 bar provides 30% of the RDA of iron
Would you like a 3-pound bag of this nourishing Montana Gluten-Free Oat Bran? It’s grown out west by awesome big sky farmers and is minimally “processed” in a dedicated, state-of-the-art, gluten-free facility. The oat bran is dry milled, with no heat applied during preparation or packaging. It’s good stuff, non-GMO, is tested and certified gluten-free, and is a great way to boost the nutritional value of GF baked goods. Most GF baked goods are low in iron and other nutrients. Tossing in some oat bran solves that problem.
To enter the giveaway, leave a comment on how you’d use the oat bran. Be creative—I’m curious. Make sure you include your email address where prompted. I’ll pick the winner via random.org. Good luck and happy baking!
Peace, love, and oat bran!
PS I’m not employed in any way by MT GF Processors or GF Prairie. No one asked me to blog about the products or do giveaways. I’m not paid to do it. I buy my own products and endorse the farmers and product developers whom I believe are doing it right. There’s been an explosion in the GF market and a lot of the stuff has the nutritional value of ground styrofoam. It’s junk food. I want the good guys to be successful. We need to support this “grass roots” movement. Our health and the health of the environment depend on it.
Go hug a farmer!
December 6th, 2012 by Melissa
Ladies, do you ever feel like this (minus the bodice drama)? Guys, do you ever nod off mid-sentence? Do you spend half your life asleep on the couch?
There are lots of reasons for feeling tired, run-down, and chronically exhausted, but the one I’m going to focus on is iron-deficiency anemia. Anemia is one of the most common adult presentations of celiac disease and the prevailing symptom of that type of anemia is overall fatigue—as in reduced physical work capacity, impaired athletic performance, and a funky attitude.
Who wants to shuffle through life bleary-eyed and drained of energy (not to mention unaware of potential wardrobe malfunctions)?
In order to have the energy you need to enjoy life and thrive, you need healthy, functioning red blood cells (RBCs). RBCs contain an oxygen-carrying protein called hemoglobin, which is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Heme is the iron-containing component, globin is the protein. Unlike most cells, mature RBCs have no nucleus. That way there’s more room to cart around the oxygen you need to work, chase your kids, climb mountains, play tennis, and walk the dog. RBCs only last about 120 days because of the wear and tear they take zipping around the body, squeezing through capillaries, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide, and supplying all our cells with nutrients.
Capillaries are the microscopic blood vessels between arteries and veins. They’re called exchange vessels and are found near almost every cell in the body, but their number varies depending on the oxygen and nutrient needs of the tissue. Muscle tissue has lots of capillaries because of the high metabolic demand, especially if you’re an athlete. The same goes for your hard-working liver. If all the capillaries in the human body were placed end to end, the collective length would be about 25,000 to 30,000 miles. Now, imagine how busy your little RBCs are and how many miles they put in each day keeping you upright and functioning. Incredible, isn’t it?
As I mentioned before, RBCs wear out after about 120 days. In order to maintain healthy numbers, we need to be cranking out new mature RBCs at the rate of at least 2 million per second. Yes, you read that right. TWO MILLION PER SECOND. And each RBC contains about 280 million hemoglobin molecules (no typo, 280 million). Each hemoglobin molecule can carry up to 4 oxygen molecules.
Seriously, tell me you’re not totally impressed with yourself. Aren’t we amazing?
Here’s the deal, though. We need to provide our bodies with stellar building blocks to make all this magical stuff happen as planned. Plus, we need to make sure we don’t have something sabotaging our good intentions. Something like celiac disease, which when undiagnosed or unmanaged, can cause nutrient malabsorption so we don’t get the proper building blocks (like iron and animo acids) we need to make all these red blood cells.
Bottom line (short-story version)? If you’re not absorbing your iron, you can’t replace your lost RBCs. If you can’t replace the high rate of RBC loss, you’ll end up with a reduced number of RBCs, a decreased amount of hemoglobin, and less oxygen-carrying capacity. In other words, you’ll be chronically fatigued, have a bad attitude, and simply getting through your day will be a monumental effort. That’s no fun.
First off, find out if you have iron-deficiency anemia. Poor absorption of iron (could be celiac disease), excessive loss of iron, increased iron requirements, or insufficient dietary intake can cause the condition. Celiac disease fits into that scenario, so make sure to consult a medical professional and get tested before taking supplements. Too much iron is toxic and can accumulate in body tissues and organs after normal needs are met.
Getting your nutrients from food should be your priority unless you have a verifiable deficiency. Here’s a list of iron-rich foods. If you’re an athlete, especially one with celiac disease, your iron-related concerns may be compounded. Add foods from this list to your diet and if you want to know more about athletically-induced, iron-deficient anemia, leave me a comment at the end of this post. Your reward for sticking with me to the end of this post is a chance to win a copy of my book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life, co-written with endurance athlete, cookbook author, and good friend Peter Bronski of the blog No Gluten No Problem. We go into great detail about nutrient absorption, iron loss, and the critical role deficiencies play in overall health and athletic performance. I’ll choose one winner in a random drawing. This book is a great guide for anyone who wants to “gain an edge” in life and in sports by going gluten-free. Plus, it makes a great Christmas present.
A Sampling of Iron Rich Foods (courtesy of The Gluten-Free Edge)
organ meats (liver, giblets)
bison and beef
pumpkin and squash seeds
oats (make sure they’re certified gluten-free*)
* My favorite sources for uncontaminated, certified gluten-free oats are Montana Gluten-Free Processors and Gluten-Free Prairie (same oats). These oats are rich in iron and protein, making them good building blocks for RBCs.
Are you curious if you get iron from using a cast-iron skillet. Check this post of mine for the geeky details: Heavy Metal Skillet Breakfast.
Peace, love, and the Gluten-Free Edge.
PS Leave a comment for a chance to win and make sure to add your email address (it won’t be seen), so I can contact you if you win. You can also check in with Pete and me on Facebook and/or Twitter. We share lots of good information.
Melissa: Facebook, Twitter
Pete: Facebook, Twitter
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
November 28th, 2012 by Melissa
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).”
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
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)
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).
November 14th, 2012 by Melissa
You know how bloggers have those long titles that indicate everything that’s missing from a recipe?
“Gluten-free, grain-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, soy-free, corn-free, nut-free, nightshade-free, pesticide-free, GMO-free gingersnaps.”
I’m not criticizing, as I’ve been guilty of my own version of this, I’m just pointing out how “free-from” obsessed we’ve become.
Or, maybe I’m just preparing you for — cue scary music — sugar-full, egg-full, dairy-megeddon cheesecake.
But first, this is my mom, back in her “salad days.” She had unusual and clever terms for everything from being young and beautiful (salad days) to dying (stepping off). She was funny, brilliant, beautiful, and feisty—right up to the moment she stepped off, which she did in typical fashion (full of grace and humor) last month. Margaret was 96-plus years old when she died. Hers was definitely a life well-lived.
I grew up eating whole foods. My mom was an amazing cook. She never relied on processed food, TV dinners, or store-bought cookies. Ever. She made everything from scratch and didn’t shy away from butter, bacon fat, eggs, cream, or sugar. We also ate fresh beets, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, beans, quinoa (where she found quinoa all those years ago, I have no idea), wild and brown rice, and a host of other fresh vegetables and whole grains. We didn’t eat much meat because she was frugal, but the meat she did buy was the good stuff and she made it last by using a small amount to make a big meal. Ham and lima bean soup that lasted for days. Beef stew with a ton of vegetables. Brown rice, vegetable, and chicken soup. She made bread and biscuits from scratch and delighted in serving over-the-top desserts when we had guests. Margaret was famous for her creme brulée, cheesecake, chocolate peanut butter cake, brownies, and lemon meringue pie, but she refused to share recipes. Absolutely refused.
When my mom stepped off, the first thing I put “dibs” on was her recipe box, which I found tucked away in the back corner of a rarely-used cabinet. Along with her recipes were several vintage cookbooks and old kitchen utensils. I sat on her kitchen floor for at least an hour, thumbing through recipes, flipping through cookbooks, playing with utensils. Tears running down my face.
I have a sign in my kitchen: Love people. Cook them good food.
I’m blessed to have been taught that. Thank you, mom.
And now (drum roll, please) I’m sharing Margaret’s cheesecake recipe, of which, we served at her “stepping off party.” Please bake it with joy and share it with love. This cheesecake is a Thanksgiving tradition at our house, but this year I’ll be making it instead of my mom. Sniff, sniff. But life goes on, so let’s be thankful for family, friends, and cheesecake.
Margaret’s Cheesecake (gluten-free, but full of dairy, fat, and sugar)
What you need
2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
2/3 cup, plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3 extra large eggs
1 & 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 carton (8 ounces) sour cream
What you do
Beat together until smooth — cream cheese, 2/3 cup of the sugar, eggs, and 1/2 teaspoon of the vanilla. pour the mixture into a buttered 9 & 1/2 inch glass pie plate. (This Pyrex pie plate works the best. It’s a touch bigger than traditional pie plates.) Bake in preheated, 350° oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until puffy and lightly brown around the edges. When done, it should spring back when lightly touched in the center. Cool cheesecake at room temperature (will sink slightly). Whisk together sour cream, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, and remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Spread over cheesecake 1/2 inch from edges. Continue to bake at 350° for an additional 15 to 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate. Top with fresh fruit or fruit compote if desired (optional, it’s just as good plain).
Several people from the assisted living home where my mom lived came to her “celebration” service. An elderly man came up to me after the service, took both my hands in his, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Your mother really liked me. She brought me the best homemade cookies and brownies.”
I love the fact that this elderly, hunched over, little gentleman said, “Your mother really liked me.” What a gift to give someone. Good food and a warm heart.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I’m grateful for all of you.
Now, go, cook good food for those you love and be thankful for the fact that you can.
Peace, love, and cheesecake.
PS If you’re worried about the fat and sugar content in this cheesecake, keep in mind that my mom lived to be 96-plus years old and she often ate cheesecake for breakfast. Nourishment is about more than just food.
November 5th, 2012 by Melissa
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.
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.
• 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.
October 15th, 2012 by Melissa
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.
PS Stay tuned for a simple test to see how well you know yourself.
October 11th, 2012 by Melissa
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.
Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons
September 24th, 2012 by Melissa
I’m sure you’ve all heard the famous Hippocrates quote, Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. He uttered those words in 400-something BC. Back in the day when food was actually—surprise—real food. That meant lots of plants and an occasional animal snack, but certainly not double-deep-fried, nacho-flavored, cheese-like chips; high-fat “Sunday” bacon; or 2-pound cinnamon rolls. When Hippocrates was talking about food as medicine, he was talking about plants. Whole foods.
See those scrawny little scallions in the above photo? Nothing all that special. They’re just onions, right? Well, those onions pack a powerful punch when it comes to health-promoting goodness.
I’ve been doing some research on foods that fight cancer, sometimes referred to as chemopreventive (or chemoprotective) foods and ran across an interesting, recently released (last week) study.
But first, a little background. The term chemopreventive was coined in the late 1970s and refers to the phytochemicals (plant chemicals) in natural products (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices) that reduce the risk of disease. I mentioned Hippocrates because I figured most of you have probably heard the food as medicine quote. Here’s another similar, although more wordy, quote from a March 2010 Pharmaceutical Research Journal abstract on cancer chemoprevention.
Moreover, it has been recognized that single agents may not always be sufficient to provide chemopreventive efficacy, and, therefore, the new concept of combination chemoprevention by multiple agents or by the consumption of “whole foods” has become an increasingly attractive area of study.
Hmmm? Wow, the “new” concept of consuming whole foods as medicine? An “increasingly attractive area of study.” Very interesting (I say with a touch of sarcasm). Wasn’t Hippocrates the father of modern medicine? Back in 400-something BC?
Okay, so we’ve gone astray on many fronts when it comes to health and what we eat. I’ll save that rant for another day and get on with the exciting news about scallions, one of my favorite foods.
There’s an increased risk of intestinal cancers associated with celiac disease. The risk is small and if you’re on a seriously committed and healthy gluten-free diet (think whole foods), the increased risk is minimal. I’m not losing any sleep over it. But colon cancer is one of the most common forms of cancers in the general population, so it’s nothing to sneeze at.
What do scallions have to do with intestinal diseases and colon cancer? Well, according to a new study, scallion extract (scallions soaked in hot or cold water) suppressed key inflammatory markers and reduced the size of cancer tumors. Yes, in rats, but in some ways, we’re not all that different.
In summary, directly from the study: “We therefore suggest that scallion plant materials and their extracts may have the potential to be systematically developed as a chemopreventive agent(s) or medicinal food against specific colon cancers.”
Psst—you don’t have to wait until they’re “systematically developed.”
I say, load up on fresh, organic scallions right now. Chop them and add them to soups, stews, chili, whatever you can think of. Both the hot and cold extracts provided protection, but the hot (cooked) version topped the list. Sauté them and add them to raw salads. I do that all the time and they taste spectacular! Roast them in a medley of vegetables. Slice them length-wise and put them on pizza (check out this recipe: my new favorite pizza topping to see what I mean).
Here’s the good news about this study. It didn’t take much, just one scallion a day to provide the extra boost in protection. If that’s not enough, scallions impair genes that store fat. Yes! Okay, in obese rats, but still. Good news, don’t you think? Onions also help lower blood pressure and are anti-inflammatory.
What’s not to like about the scallion?!
Go, buy some now! Let food be thy medicine!
PS Stay tuned for a roasted scallion pesto recipe. Oh my gosh! Delicious.
* P Arulselvan et al., “Dietary Administration of Scallion Extract Effectively Inhibits Colorectal Tumor Growth: Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms in Mice,” PLoS ONE 7(9), e44658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044658, September 14, 2012.
September 11th, 2012 by Melissa
One more post on weight loss (or gain), mitochondria density, and metabolic health and then I’ll get back to posting some healthy, gluten-free recipes. I promise. But before I do that, I have to fill in the blanks from my prior post on this subject. To catch up, please see part one—the mitochondria: your own starship enterprise. This two-part series features highlights from last June’s Fitness & Health Bloggers Conference held at the newly opened Anschutz Health & Wellness Center.
Okay, are you ready for a different take on weight loss? Curious, even?
Dr. Iñigo San Millán is the director of the Human Performance Lab at the Anschutz Center. He’s an exercise physiologist and his conference presentation brought together two different areas of customized approaches to fitness. On one end, we have the average person trying to lose weight and get healthy. On the other end, we have world-class, elite, endurance athletes. You know—the kind of people who run ultra-marathons, break world records, win Olympic medals, ride in the Tour de France. Yes, I know, there’s a big gap between average and elite. But according to Dr. San Millán, we have a lot to learn from elite athletes and can apply the same general principles of metabolic health to our own pursuit of fitness.
What is metabolic health, you ask? Overall, it means being healthy and fit in all aspects and on a whole body level (on a cardiovascular, hormonal, emotional, nutritional, and cellular level). Sounds rather yogic, doesn’t it? Mind, body, and spirit health.
Dr. San Millán tossed out some brutal facts about the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease in the United States. Sixty-eight to seventy percent of the US population is overweight or obese. Two-thirds of Americans are on some sort of diet or weight-loss program at any given time, but 98% of weight loss is gained back. That roller-coaster ride of weight gain, weight loss, weight gain undermines metabolic health and makes it increasingly harder to lose the weight. What’s the answer?
It’s complicated and there’s no magic formula, but there’s a positive side to this. We can make health-enhancing changes at anytime of life. It’s never too late to eat better and move more. BUT, it has to become a way of life, not a temporary “diet” or periodic exercise program.
According to Dr. San Millán, elite endurance athletes are the most fit people on the planet and the only population totally free of acquired metabolic and cardiovascular disease. As Dr. San Millán said in his talk, “Simply, it doesn’t exist.”
So, what makes these elite athletes metabolic super-stars?
High mitochondrial density and metabolic flexibility.
In a nutshell: cellular energy requirements control how many mitochondria we have (in “healthy” individuals without a genetic mitochondrial disorder). The more we move (walk, run, hike, bike, ski, play tennis), the more mitochondria we have. Endurance athletes have twice the mitochondrial content as sedentary individuals (Davis et al., 1981, 1982). The more mitochondria we have, the more efficiently we process carbs and fat. The more efficiently we process carbs and fat, the less likely we are to be overweight. If we maintain a healthy weight, there is less risk of insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease.
See those legs in the above cycling photo? That’s turbo-charged mitochondrial density in action. It’s unlikely any of those cyclists are overweight or have type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Tour de France riders consume an average of 6000–9000 calories per day. Of those, 75–80% are carbs. Michael Phelps told ESPN that he consumes 8000–10000 calories per day during training and competition. Again, a high percentage are carbs.
Okay, sounds good, but where do we start? And comparing ourselves to elite athletes is a little intimidating, wouldn’t you agree? I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to be running marathons anytime soon. Plus, we’re all different. Each body is unique. We have different adaptations to exercise and different responses to what we eat. But, the good news is, it doesn’t matter how old we are or what shape we’re in, we can make positive changes. We can lose weight. We can eat better. We can become healthier. We can increase our mitochondria and enhance our ability to process carbs and fat. We can thrive.
Here’s the deal. According to Dr. San Millán, physical activity should be the foundation, boosted by a healthy diet. And that healthy diet can include carbs. Healthy carbs aren’t evil, we just need to move our bodies daily to be efficient at processing those carbs.
I agree. We need to make time for activity, at least an hour a day, more if possible. You don’t have to go to the gym or buy expensive equipment. Dance, do yoga, garden, walk your dog, sell your car, move to Paris, become Amish. It’s about permanent lifestyle changes; it’s not about dieting. We need to move more to lose weight, maintain metabolic health, and avoid type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
We don’t have to be an elite athlete, but we can learn from them.
Peace, love, and physical activity! Lots of it. Weight loss will be the side effect!
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