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confessions of an HLA DQ2 cavewoman

*Warning: this post took on a life of its own. If you’re looking for a quick recipe, bail out now. If you’re remotely interested in my take on the wonderful world of food, genetics, evolution and Celiac disease, brace yourself and read on.

Was this Paleo guy after the mastodon or the armadillo?

Or, maybe he was out doing some wild cereal hunting. That field of Triticum would be a lot easier to tackle than the mastodon. I’m pretty sure I evolved from a less aggressive, nomadic, grass-eating tribe. My ancestors hunted with pruning shears, not six foot long daggers with jagged tips. We ate grasses, berries, nuts, seeds, dates, olives, leafy green things and even rich, savory mushrooms once we figured out which ones didn’t kill us. We also ate a lot of fish depending on our travels.

Unfortunately, that’s where things went awry. When we stopped wandering and built condos on the Mediterranean Sea. I had HLA DQ2 ancestors and around 8500 B.C. they decided cultivating Triticum dicoccum (emmer wheat) was less dangerous than chasing 6 ton mastodons with sharp pointy tusks.

And so, the Celiac story begins – with the domestication of wheat and the interaction of HLA (human leukocyte antigen) genes and deamidated gluten peptides. To make it even more fun, let’s throw in sexual selection, mating preferences and pathogen resistance. We actually have some biological factors (those HLA genes again) influencing who we’re attracted to and mate with.

HLA genes are involved in immune function. They guard against nasty invaders and do a good job keeping us healthy. They also magically prompt us to compliment our disease fighting ability with genetic dissimilarities. We subconsciously strive for varied biological attributes in our offspring. Bottom line? These genes play a role in who we get the hots for.

Seriously. I’m not making this up. Check here for details.

It’s called olfactory curb appeal. Okay, I made that up.

Without even knowing it, you might be attracted to someone because of smell? You don’t know why they smell good, it’s not perfume or cologne or anything. It’s just them. That’s deep, dark and delicious biology working to keep the species healthy. Subconsciously we’re seeking to keep our DNA loaded with a genetic mixture of diverse immunity, so we sniff out complimentary HLA genes. Unfortunately, the introduction of wheat, barley and rye played havoc on our genetic blueprint. These normally brilliant little HLA DQ2 genes also code for autoimmunity (check here for details), as is the case with Celiac Disease and Type 1 Diabetes.

Oops.

Okay, that was a rather convoluted introduction to why I don’t favor the Paleo diet, but I had to set the biogeographical stage. You see, my ancestors go back 10,000 years ago to the Fertile Crescent. They were sunbathing on the Syrian coast and eating a Mediterranean diet way back when. Before it was cool and trendy to eat like that. I’m pretty sure they weren’t loading up on pounds of mastadon meat. Maybe on rare occasions like someone’s wedding or the toppling of a rival empire, but not often.

I’m also thinking my female ancestors frequently had to settle for HLA DQ2 suitors rather than shaking things up with an anti-Celiac DQ4 guy. Life was different then. It’s not like you could jet off to the Andes in hopes of diluting the DQ2 gene pool. You got stuck with whoever was in your merry band of hunters and gatherers and that probably meant similarly encoded DQ antigen regions.

I’m just curious about all this because I think it’s in my genetic makeup to favor plants. I’m not much of a meat eater. Paleo eating is popular right now and supporters suggest we evolved to eat a high animal protein diet, but that doesn’t work for me. At all. Ethics aside, I’m not fond of animal products and I don’t digest meat or dairy well. I’m much better off eating a big bowl of leafy greens, some brown rice and a mix of roasted veggies than I am a slab of prime rib or a chunk of cheese. I’m sure I’d do better if my meat sources were from wild, organic, healthy animals and my dairy sources were raw and from 100% grass fed, happy goats, but in general, and for a lot of reasons, I’m more suited to a plant-based diet. Considering the toxic chemicals in our food supply, the overuse of antibiotics and hormones in CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) and the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria, I don’t think a diet heavy with animal protein is healthy. And that’s not factoring in the impact on the environment.

By the way, this post isn’t an endorsement of any specific eating plan. I’m just thinking out loud. So, don’t hit me over the head with a club if you’re a Paleo fan. For the record, I’m not vegetarian or vegan, but if I do eat animal products, I’m grateful that I can be picky about the sources.

Okay? Are we all friends? Omnivores and herbivores? Vegans and meat eaters? Berry pickers and spear throwers? What works for one person doesn’t always work for another. We’re biochemically unique. I’m also convinced that genetic influences (as wildly explained above), environmental determinants, ethical leanings, lifestyle factors and nutrient feng shui make a difference.

I made up that nutrient feng shui thing. That’s my phrase for food combining, which I’m not into either. Life is hard enough, lets make eating easier, not more difficult. A nutrient-dense, whole foods, plant-based diet is easy and healthy. At least for my DNA.

Points to Ponder

• Recent research suggests that red meat consumption increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2011

• Study reveals direct evidence for a variety of plant foods in the Neanderthal diet, including legumes, date palms and grass seeds (Triticeae). PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2010

• Don’t assume we were all heavy meat eaters. Molar macrowear in Neanderthals and early Homo Sapiens suggests high dietary variability. My ancestors were Paleo Plant People from Mediterranean habitats. Check here for the research details. I made up Paleo Plant People, but who knows, that might emerge as a classification system. I’ll contact the Paleolithic genome project and suggest it.

• Maintaining a healthy pH balance is important to health. Beef, pork, poultry, milk, butter, cheese, cream are acid-forming foods. Plants are alkalizing. An acidic internal environment is disease-promoting. Low acid diets may protect against several diseases, including osteoporosis (yes, osteoporosis). Check here for details.

• According to my weight and age, I’m supposed to consume about 45 to 50 grams of protein per day. The average American adult consumes at least twice that much per day (100 to 120 grams per day). When that much protein (along with the often higher percentage of fat in animal products) is consumed, other important nutrients are often excluded from the diet. Fiber percentages and beneficial plant nutrients are often lacking in high protein (animal source) diets. I prefer less protein than the USDA’s RDA and more fiber than they recommend. That can easily be accomplished on a high-grade, plant-based diet. Even if you’re exercising a lot. Even if you’re a serious athlete.

• Strong and consistent correlations are reported between death rates from cancer and per capita consumption of animal products. Check here for epidemiological correlations between diet and cancer frequency.

• It’s my opinion that a whole foods, predominantly plant-based diet filled with lots of fiber and organic, nutrient-dense vegetables is the best way to heal and thrive if you have Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. I have DQ2 genes and Celiac disease. People like me often have difficulty digesting animal products (meat and dairy). Maybe we didn’t evolve to do so. Maybe our genes are telling us something. Maybe Paleo isn’t for us. Maybe we’re Paleo Plant People.

Peace, love and green veggies.
Melissa

 

please stand up to read this

Are you standing up? No?

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m not either.

Disclosure: I’m sitting in my big, soft, down-filled, vintage Hemingway chair (and ottoman) with my computer on my lap and a cup of organic coffee with coconut milk by my side. I’m also munching on sliced Fuji apples and almond butter while typing and watching the final stage of the Tour de France.

Having said that, I’m off to an all-day yoga workshop, so I’m not feeling too bad about my sitting, eating, sipping, blogging and watching TV.

Whoa, when I say it like that, it sounds pretty bad.

And, that’s my point. It all adds up, no matter what our excuses are. Watching TV is watching TV, even if it’s a monumentally epic, calorie-burning event like the Tour de France. We sit far more than we realize and it translates to a higher risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes to Alzheimer’s. I did lots of research for this post and one thing I found particularly disturbing was that the increased risk of disease was found to be independent of physical activity level. That’s always been my excuse. Hey, I exercise every day. I also sit on my exercise ball a lot of the time. That’s all good, but I flat-out sit too much. Blogging, writing, research, working, social media, messing around on my computer.

My goal is to cut down on my sitting down. I’m standing as I make this declaration! Well, sort of. But, you get the idea. I’ll get moving and let this wonderful graphic speak for me. If you want a systematic review of longitudinal studies published since 1996 on the relationship between sitting on your bum and increased risk of disease, check the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 41, Issue 2 (August 2011).

Peace, love and stand up!
Melissa
P.S. Erin of Gluten Free Fitness, you were right. Cadel rocked!

 

Sitting is Killing You
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

sugar or fish oil, which will it be

My day usually starts with a cup of organic coffee sweetened with coconut milk, an apple with almond butter and a dose of science and culture. I haven’t read a newspaper in ages, but I do read feeds from science blogging networks and research publications. I find creative inspiration in everything from gene expression and nutrition to spider sex and evolution. It all seems connected in one way or another.

I tend to follow a rather yogic principle of parsimony.

So, sugar and fish oil? How are they connected?

While trolling research articles early this morning I ran across a collaborative effort by an interesting mix of scientists. While the subjects in the study were mice rather than people, I still found the piece enlightening.

Sucrose Counteracts the Anti-Inflammatory Effect of Fish Oil in Adipose Tissue and Increases Obesity Development in Mice.

Hmmm?

Sucrose is the organic compound commonly known as table sugar. It’s refined white sugar and according to the US Department of Agriculture, Americans consume 156 pounds of added sugars per capita each year.

ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SIX POUNDS.

Imagine that (if you can).

You’ve probably heard that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil are protective against inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, heart disease, hormonal disorders, obesity, neuro-degenerative diseases and so on. There’s a lot of compelling research regarding the benefits of high-quality fish oil.

After reading this research article, I’m thinking it might be a waste of money to take an expensive fish oil capsule if you’re going to follow it up with a bowl of fruit loops or a donut. The researchers discovered that high levels of dietary sucrose counteracted the anti-inflammatory benefits of fish oil and increased the development of obesity.

Check here for a detailed run-down on sugar, including the various forms. And for an exposé on fruity, sugary breakfast cereals, check here.

Peace, love and fish oil – without the sugar chaser!
Melissa

(for girls only) nutrition for women

Last month I did a blog post on super foods for men. I also threw in some basic (and not so basic) differences in male and female brain function. This time I’ll focus on us girls.

Is there a better place to start than hormones and chocolate? Maybe fashion, hats, and shiny things. I’ll see if I can weave them all together, but the launching pad has to be hormones. A brain sloshing around in a pool of estrogen looks and behaves quite different from a brain infused with testosterone. I touched on a few cognitive gender differences in my last post, but since I find this so fascinating, I think I’ll keep this neuro-thread going.

I’m a research nerd and guess what I’ve discovered after logging zillions of hours reading scientific papers (plus, years of field study)?

Men really are from Mars.

Before you jump to the conclusion that I might be gender-biased in my observations, I’ve also discovered that women are from BabbleOn. See – if I was going to fudge my findings, I’d pick something far more flattering.

Here’s the deal. Women do better than men on tasks that require verbal communication and memory of personal experiences. Men excel in the manipulation of complex spatial information.

What does that mean?

Women talk a lot and remember everything. Men can park 2 cars, 1 motorcycle, 3 mountain bikes, a fishing boat, a side-winder circular saw, 6 pairs of skis and 300 pounds of camping gear in a 2 car garage.

Like I said before, we’re different.

Back to the hormone part. Scientifically speaking, aside from all the other stuff estrogen does, it also provides females with the ability to outperform males in associating stimuli across time. It even shows up in more adult-generated neurons in our hippocampus.

What’s a hippocampus, you ask?

It’s a little doo-hickey in the brain that just so happens to be a long-term memory consolidation station and an emotional storage bin. It’s like a jewelry box for stuff you can dig up and throw into a heated conversation years later.

So think about that one for a minute.

Estrogen, emotions, new neurons, and memory storage? It’s no wonder we never forget things men do (or, don’t do). Sorry, but I have to take this one step further (female trait, babbling on). Gender differences in memory and learning are facilitated by differences in hormones and brain anatomy. But it doesn’t stop there. That also gives us the ability to further change our brain anatomy by forming new neurons. The actual structure of the brain changes allowing us to remember more stuff you guys did for longer periods of time.

Like f o r e v e r.

Oh my gosh, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Although I took a rather convoluted, gender-driven journey to get here, I want to stress the importance of balancing blood sugar (glucose) and hormones when it comes to women’s health. Those two things form the foundation for radiant energy, stable emotions, and better stuff in your jewelry box – both pleasant memories and shiny things.

To function optimally, the body must maintain blood sugar levels within the proper ranges. Extreme fluctuations cause roller-coaster hormones, which can lead to hissy fits, dish tossing, and crying jags. It also leads to all kinds of health problems down the road. We can avoid the drama by keeping glucose and hormones in balance. That starts with nutrition and exercise. Yoga is my preferred form of movement-induced, hormone balancing (pun intended). Here are my food favorites.

Melissa’s top 10 super-foods for women (in no particular order)

1. Cinnamon
Cinnamon has a long history as a functional food. Not only does this sweet spice smell and taste wonderful, it also helps control blood sugar and makes you feel full longer. It’s anti-microbial, helps fight candida and is a good source of fiber, calcium and iron. I add about a teaspoon of cinnamon to all my smoothies. I also sprinkle it over yogurt, add it to homemade granola, power bars and whatever else I can think of. I try to eat at least a teaspoon of cinnamon a day.

2. Broccoli
According to cancer researchers at the University of Michigan, a natural compound in broccoli inhibits breast cancer stem cells and helps block their self-renewal pathway. There are all kinds of studies regarding cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy and similar green leafy vegetables) and their positive role in cancer prevention. Good stuff!

3. Fiber
Although not a food per se, fiber is so important for blood sugar balance, weight loss, and overall health. I’m a huge fan and eat way more than the recommended amount. For a detailed post I did on fiber several years ago, check here. You’ll find all the information you need to boost your fiber intake. Make sure you do it slowly and drink lots of water.

4. Avocados
Avocados are high in fat, but it’s a healthy fat and worth adding to your arsenal of super foods. Plus, if you add avocado to a big green salad or a fresh salsa mix, you greatly increase the absorption of the other nutrients. Carotenoids (in tomatoes, peppers, carrots, greens, etc.) are fat-soluble nutrients that need to tag along with high-grade fat to be adequately absorbed and assimilated. Avocados are also a low-carb, high-fiber food source, which is great for balancing blood sugar and hormones (once again, so important).

5. Coconut
Another high fat food, but again, this is good stuff, so don’t be fat-aphobic. The key is to be very picky about your fats. Please check here for a detailed post I wrote a couple of years ago on the health benefits of coconut. I love the stuff! Eat it, cook with it, put it on your skin, slather it on your hair.

6. Dark chocolate and red wine
Hey, what can I say? Girls are programmed to lust after chocolate. Resveratrol, a substance in cacao and red wine, is the “it” supplement right now. But, in most cases, I believe we’re better off eating the whole food rather than taking supplements. Treat yourself on occasion (moderation, moderation) and eat a small chunk of high-grade dark chocolate. You might even pair it with 4 ounces of a nice Pinot Noir.
Past resveratrol posts: dark chocolate as health food, enlightened hot chocolate, carnival of love (red wine)

7. Beets and berries
Those of you who have following this blog for the past 4 years know I’m passionate about beets. Ridiculously so. I’ve been a beet girl my entire life. My mom says I ate them as a baby and grew up thinking they were dessert. I was lucky. I had a mom who fed me beets, spinach, and broccoli during the explosion of processed foods. I can’t remember ever having a Twinkie, sugary cereal, or Hamburger Helper. We ate real food, made from scratch. There are so many studies linking the nutrients in beets to good health that I won’t even try to list them all. Just trust me, they’re amazing. I have a lot of beet blog posts in my archives, but since summer is around the corner, here’s an ice cream recipe.

8. Apples
Apples are high in fiber, help balance blood sugar in several different ways (they’re magic), are anti-inflammatory, high in antioxidants, support healthy gut bacteria and are packed with goodness. Studies show positive results with age-related health problems as well (macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, etc.). I’m taking this “apple a day” thing seriously. Apples are sprayed with some seriously nasty stuff, so choose organic.

9. Swiss chard and leafy greens
Greens are true super foods. All greens are great sources of beneficial plant nutrients, but I’ll focus on Swiss chard since I’m on my “balance your blood sugar” rant. There’s a substance in chard (syringic acid if you must know) that has warrior princess power when it comes to blood sugar regulation. Chard (like beets) also contains a group of phytochemicals called betalains, which are high in antioxidants, are anti-inflammatory and promote detoxification.

10. Chick peas
How could I not include chick peas?  Lucky for us, these little nutrient-dense namesakes help regulate blood sugar and are packed with fiber. I know, this blood sugar/fiber thing is getting tiresome, but it’s so important for long-term health, artful aging and hormone balance. Chick peas are also super high in the mineral manganese, which is an antioxidant involved with energy production. Who doesn’t want more energy? Check here for one of my favorite roasted chick pea recipes from Shirley at GFE.

Just as important is what you don’t eat. Avoid processed foods, refined sugar, soda pop, too much caffeine or alcohol, and junk food. Stick to whole foods with an emphasis on veggies and fruit.

Peace, love, and real food!
Melissa
Image of Robert Lewis Reid painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

(for boys only) nutrition for men

This is part 1 of a 2-part series on gender-specific nutrition. I’ll start with my top 10 super-foods for men. Although we can easily eat the same foods, I thought I’d have fun with this and focus on specific nutrition needs for men and for women.

We’re very different, you know. I’m inspired and enchanted by the differences, even the ones that drive me nuts.

Ladies, do you think the 3 Stooges are funny?

No?

See – that’s a boy thing. A gender trait.

Back in 2005 the president of Harvard University resigned over a comment he made at an academic conference about the innate differences between male and female brains. He suggested that these functional differences might explain why women aren’t equally represented in the math and science fields. I have no desire to expand on this or to share my opinion (well, maybe a little), but as a female science nerd, I agree and I’m not offended by his comments. We’re different – our brains are even architecturally different.

Different doesn’t mean smarter. It just means not the same. There are evolutionary reasons for that. We excel in different ways.

I could write a 5000 word essay on why men and women communicate differently, but please don’t make me take a spatial orientation test. Or quickly process mathematical equations. I love science, but I’d rather read about, think about, write about, or discuss this mass of neural wiring we have in our heads than do math problems under pressure. Just the thought of that makes my neurons smolder.

Seriously.

That whole thing about a train leaving the station at 6 PM going due east at 75 miles an hour and blah, blah, blah – gives me a massive headache. I can smell smoke right now. If you add in another train leaving an hour later going due west at 85 miles an hour, I’ll blow a gasket.

But I digress. Spiraling is in my DNA. Another gender difference.

Bottom line? Men and women have specific traits that have been selected through evolution and specific traits that are developed through cultural and social conditioning. We also have very different biological demands and nutritional needs. Regardless, we’re just plain different in a zillion ways, so we might as well rejoice in that and have fun with it.

Let’s start with food.

Melissa’s top 10 super-foods for men (in no particular order)

1. Hops (see photo above)
As in beer. Researchers at Oregon State University discovered a flavonoid in hops called xanthohumol that appears to reduce inflammation and may inhibit the development of prostate cancer. According to Fred Stevens, professor of Medicinal Chemistry at OSU, xanthohumol is only found in beer that is produced from hops and not in beer made from hop extracts. (Drink alcohol in moderation, there are health risks associated with over-consumption. I have to say this, I’m a woman. You know, that whole nurturing thing.)

2. Bison
Once upon a time, men did the hunting, women the gathering. We evolved with different roles for a variety of reasons. In general, men are more aggressive, bigger, stronger and tend to take greater physical risks. Personally, I’d rather wrestle with a blueberry bush than a 2,000 pound bison, so I’m good with that. Our gender-specific food roles are linked with social and cultural perceptions of masculinity and femininity. No way around it. Men burn meat, women bake pies. By the way, baking a pie (especially a gluten-free pie) takes a greater understanding of chemistry than throwing a steak on the grill. Women rock at science, we just don’t always get credit for it.

As far as  nutritionally dense food and masculinity is concerned, I’m choosing 100% grass-fed, organic and humanely treated bison because of its wonderful amino acid profile (good protein for building muscles to protect the berry pickers), low glycemic index, and high amounts of B vitamins, zinc, and selenium. B vitamins are important for metabolism, zinc plays a role in prostate health and selenium is a powerful antioxidant.

3. Cranberries
Studies show that a mixture of flavonoids in cranberries help inhibit LDL oxidation and may decrease the risk of atherosclerosis. Whole cranberries in food form not only protect the heart, but the liver, kidneys and urinary tract as well. Eat the whole food, rather than relying on supplements or extracts. The synergistic value of the various nutrients working together is what makes up a super-food.

4. Pumpkin seeds
Here’s another food rich in zinc to keep your boy parts healthy. According to the Journal of Fertility and Sterility, zinc concentration in sperm directly relates to its motility in that all-important, nano-yard dash. If you’re looking to reproduce, you want fast, agile swimmers once an egg is launched. And keep in mind, zinc has to be replenished. Men produce about 300 million sperm per day. You read that right. PER DAY. Us girls have 1 very special egg per month. I feel like such a princess. Guys – snack on pumpkin seeds. They’re much easier to carry around in your briefcase or backpack than oysters (also high in zinc).

5. Oysters
No explanation needed.

6. Turmeric
Turmeric contains a yellow substance called curcurim, which is the spice that gives curry its name. Rather trendy right now, turmeric shows promise of anti-cancer properties, especially in the gastrointestinal tract. This wonderful spice (I love curry) also helps promote liver detoxification. Check here for one of my recipes for sweet and spicy Moroccan stew. The smell alone is intoxicating.

7. Beets
Beet root contains inorganic nitrate, which researchers have determined, decreases human oxygen requirements during sub-maximal exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise. This is a performance-enhancing substance that might turn your pee pink, but you won’t flunk the drug test. Beet root also helps lower blood pressure. This is one of my favorite functional plants. I eat beets in one form or another 4 or 5 times a week.

8. Blackberries
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health, blackberries have a very high antioxidant capacity. Antioxidants are believed to play a role in neutralizing the effect of free radicals. Free radicals cause cellular damage and contribute to age-related degeneration. Eat blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. That’s much better (and more fun) than taking supplements.

9. Kale
Kale is a wonder plant. It’s over-the-top high in vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and is a good source of fiber, protein, iron and a host of other vitamins and minerals. It’s also highly anti-inflammatory and low in calories. Good stuff. Skip the fat-filled potato chips and opt for kale chips instead.

10. Sardines
Sardines are absolutely packed with vitamin B-12. In fact, there are few more concentrated sources. B-12 helps promote heart health by keeping homocysteine levels in balance. Elevated homocysteine is linked to cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Sardines are also a rich source of good fats, high-quality protein and vitamin D, a nutrient that is hard to come by and one that promotes bone health.

Next up – food for warrior princesses. Sign up for my email updates so you don’t miss anything.

Peace, love and healthy men!
Melissa

neuron nutrition (my top 8 brain foods)

I think the highly intelligent plant world is trying to tell us something with this chunk of cauliflower.

Doesn’t it look like a mid-sagittal section right out of a frontal lobe, complete with cerebral white matter?

Or, maybe networks of giant axons and dendrites. This head (whoa, it’s even called a head) of cauliflower appears to be a bit left-brain-heavy. What do you think? More neural pathways on the left side? Aaah, must be a linear thinker.

I’ll put aside my vivid imagination and interest in plant autopsies for a moment and talk about the healing power of whole foods. Most of us have enough bizarro stuff going on inside our heads that can sabotage our good intentions, let’s at least give our thoughts some powerful building blocks and mighty antioxidants to work with.

Food for thought

I can’t start this “brain food” list without commenting on gluten as a neuro-cootie. This is official – research has shown gluten to be a neuro-toxin (for some susceptible people). It can cause ataxia, epilepsy-like symptoms, peripheral neuropathy, depression, migraines, brain fog and a host of other neurological problems. In some rare instances, the neurological impact of gluten can even mimic ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), MS and Parkinson’s Disease. Get tested for celiac disease if you have unusual neurological symptoms. A gluten-free, whole foods diet may (will) be beneficial. Check here for Dr. Rodney Ford’s take on this years ago. Scientific research is finally catching up to his diagnostic skills as a physician.

Nutrition for neurons (the basics)

• EFAs (essential fatty acids) are important for brain function. Wild-caught salmon and other cold-water fish, flax seeds, nuts, and pastured eggs are examples of foods rich in EFAs.
• Proper hydration is important for brain function. Dehydration causes the release of stress hormones, which impact neurons.
• Organic, whole foods rich in antioxidants should be the focus of a “healthy brain” diet. Antioxidants help prevent and repair cell damage.
• Sunshine stimulates the production of vitamin D, which is thought to aid in the protection of neurons. Plus, a little sunshine can boost your mood.

My top 8 food picks for brain health

This list is just a random assortment of nutrient-dense foods that I like and are high in antioxidant power. I’ve chosen foods that are easy to find and that people might actually eat. No need to scour the Amazon rainforest floor for some exotic plant or climb the Himalayas for a power-packed berry. Seriously, let’s make this easy. Organic is always best and I prefer eating the whole food rather than counting on supplements. That way you get a diverse combination of beneficial phytonutrients.

1. Cauliflower (I had no choice, this one looks like a brain)
Cauliflower is packed with vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant. Research is mounting that oxidative damage to brain cells may precede diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. One cup of raw cauliflower contains 94% of the daily value for vitamin C. It’s also anti-inflammatory and is a good source of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and other plant goodies.

2. Wild-caught salmon (as mentioned above)
Please check out this past post I did on EFAs and why they are important for brain health. The post also includes a detailed break-down of omega-3s and omega-6s and a wonderful salmon recipe. Lots of good brain-building information in that post.

3. Blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries.
All of these fruits are packed with antioxidants. Don’t stick with one choice – mix and match them for a variety of protective compounds.

4. Mustard greens
You’re probably thinking this is an unlikely choice for the top 8 brain foods, but I’ve decided it’s a good representative for leafy greens in general (kale, collard greens, spinach, chard). One cup of mustard greens, which I’ve recently become quite fond of, has 118% of the daily value of vitamin A and 65% of the daily value of vitamin C. It’s also a good source of vitamin E and it’s anti-inflammatory. A, C and E are all antioxidants, so this green is a good one to make friends with. I throw it in smoothies.

5. Coffee
Surprise, surprise! As those of you following this blog know, even though I’m a nutritionist, I don’t think coffee is evil. In fact, I like the stuff in small doses and guess what? It’s not only high in antioxidants, research indicates the caffeine in coffee has a neuroprotective effect. Choose organic coffee, use in moderation (1-2 cups per day) and don’t drink it later in the day.

6. Beans
Beans are a good source of easily-absorbed amino acids, which are important in the production of enzymes and neurotransmitters.

7. Organic, pasture-raised chicken eggs
Eggs are one of the best sources of high-quality protein. Pastured eggs are also high in omega-3s, vitamin A, vitamin E and B vitamins, all of which are important for healthy brain function.

8. Dark chocolate
Good, high-quality dark chocolate in moderation is a good source of antioxidants. Plus, a chunk of dark chocolate now and then puts you in a good mood and makes you a nicer person. I’m nicer when people give me chocolate. Aren’t you?

Peace, love and brain power!
Melissa

brain health – part 1

In case you’re wondering, that’s a brain reading an anatomy book. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first I’d like to set the stage with a little yogic diversion.

I have a long-standing, very committed yoga practice and spend a good deal of my time in yoga-induced, la-la-land. Quite often upside down.

Wait, keep reading.

I’m not enlightened or anything. Far from it. I don’t sprinkle cosmic fairy dust around and although I’ve completed hundreds of hours of yoga teacher training, I still can’t pronounce most of the Sanskrit blah-blah-blahsanas. But, I’m serious when I say that yoga is my medicine. I mean that in a practical and qualitative sense. I was diagnosed with celiac disease many years ago and the healing power yoga has had on my life is profound. Plus, it’s cognitive therapy for my billions of neurons. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Especially if gluten has played havoc on those neurons.

But — meditation to go with my yoga?

Now that’s a different story. Although I’ve meditated on and off for decades (honestly, decades), I’m a fairly incompetent meditator. I need to be moving to clear my mind and find a peaceful rhythm for my ricocheting thoughts. Moving meditation is intensely satisfying, but I find it very difficult to sit in sukhasana (ironically called easy pose) in a silent attempt to clear my mind and be present. Don’t get me wrong, I think meditation is an amazing opportunity for positive transformation, I just like to move and let my neurons play pin-ball while I’m transforming.

Yes, I’m a touch ADD-ish. You know, that’s not always a bad thing. Mind-wandering research (imagine that) suggests that day-dreaming activates different problem-solving areas of the brain that don’t normally work together. It’s a good way to foster bipartisan, across the aisle (or hemispheres in this case), neural networking. Some of our most insightful moments come when we allow our thoughts to surf, drift and bounce around.

I say, let that ship sail.

But I digress.

This post is about healthy neurological function, but the above preamble is an important piece to the puzzle. Everything goes together. Nutrient-dense foods, movement, balance, mind-body connections, quality sleep, stress reduction, brain gymnastics, mind wandering. They’re all part of healing and thriving and every puzzle piece plays an important role in overall health and neurological aging. One of my interests is how gluten, as a neurotoxin, impacts mental and physical health, but regardless, this is pertinent information for anyone with a brain.

I’ll get to the nutrition piece in brain health – part 2, a post that will follow, so stay tuned. But first I’d like to set the stage with a few points to ponder. Put on your geek hat and fire up those neurons – this is interesting stuff (at least in my nerdy world).

Awe-inspiring brain facts (random stuff to blow your mind)

The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (yes, that’s billion with a b). A neuron is a specialized cell that transfers information via electrical and chemical signaling. We want to keep our neurons happy and healthy so they can chat with each other in zippy harmony.

Nutrient-dense foods, exercise, yoga, meditation and cognitive activity can stimulate the creation of new neurons throughout life. You’re never too old to improve your brain function or your neurological health. Play chess, do crossword puzzles, skip, bend, twist and watch Jeopardy while balancing in tree pose.

Research suggests that yoga increases GABA levels. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s the anti-anxiety, mellow-mood neurotransmitter. More is good, especially if you can boost your GABA levels in non-pharmacological ways. Yoga as valium.

Stress and poor sleep can contribute to cognitive decline. Yoga and meditation help reduce stress and promote quality sleep. Ommmm = Zzzzzz. I’m working on the meditation part.

Pull out your map and compass. Brain scans of elite London taxi drivers revealed a much larger hippocampus than in normal subjects. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory retention and navigation. These taxi drivers have a detailed mental map of the convoluted London streets stored in their grey matter. More evidence that the actual structure of the brain can change. This is called neuro-plasticity – changes in brain cells and the connection between them to encode new information. Beware, driving in London can cause severe stress. Breathe in, breathe out.

The human brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, but comprises only 2% of its mass and on average weighs about 3 pounds. Lots of bang for your buck in that little package.

At only 4 weeks from conception, a human fetus is producing 250,000 brain cells every minute. WOW!

Exercise is linked to the growth of new brain cells.

Your brain uses about 12 watts of power, less than your refrigerator light.

The human brain produces an average of 70,000 thoughts per day. How do they know that? Really.

The olfactory neurons in your nose die off on a regular basis, but are continually replaced. Humans have 12 million smell receptor cells. Sounds like a lot, right? Bloodhounds have 4 billion. Sniff, sniff.

Research shows that meditation boosts attention, processing speed and response times.

Think about how you think (or something like that). The power of positive thought and the intention of mind-body harmony can be more effective than drugs. See Professor Funk’s video below about shiny shit – his words, not mine. This is called the placebo effect. Our beliefs and thoughts directly impact our cellular physiology, so have a good attitude.

Thank you to my friends at I Heart Guts for the use of that handsome little brain reading Gray’s Anatomy and to the folks at Lumosity for some of the brainy fun facts.

Peace, love and joyous neurons!
Melissa

are you craving a healthier 2011

What would your life be like if you never engaged in this health-zapping cycle of overeating, fatigue, craving and weight gain. What if you never again treated your body like a trash can?

Thank you to the lovely Heidi B for that analogy. Heidi is a full-time yoga teacher. A smart, spiritual, beautiful, India-visiting, committed yogi on a seeker’s path.

She walked into the studio at 6:30 AM the other morning to teach her class and asked if anyone else felt like they had been overdoing it during the holidays? She said she was treating her body like a trash can and wondered who else might be struggling with the same thing.

Wow, I respect her honesty. My gosh, she’s a yoga teacher. She’s supposed to be drinking filtered water with a squeeze of organic lemon and eating farm-fresh veggies every day. Not candy, French fries and red wine.

Yes, I did relate and waved my arm in the air from child’s pose, indicating I was guilty of the “trash can” phenomenon as well. I’m a nutritionist and Heidi’s a yoga teacher. We’re not supposed to do that, right?

Wrong.

Almost everyone wanders down that road on occasion. We both ate too much of whatever it is we eat too much of at times like this. We all have our personal comfort cravings. Add in the stress of the holidays (even the good stress) and you’ve got a “recipe” for a food-filled train wreck. I’m typically seduced by pie, muffins, pancakes, syrup and red wine.

Oh, and for the record, I’ll take this opportunity to pat myself on the back for never drinking red wine with pancakes. I do have standards.

Pie and red wine? Now that’s another story.

Here’s my problem (not that you asked). Most of the time my over-indulging takes the form of fairly healthy food, in fact “real” food. Organic food. Often times, it’s even local food. How cool is that? But that can be a faulty premise. Or, at least one that is easy to justify, defend and make excuses for.

Pastured, organic butter and whipping cream, rich in CLA. Local, organic CSA potatoes and pumpkins from Grant Family Farms. Raw, organic cheese. Locally made, organic chocolate bars (73% organic dark cocoa). Smooth, velvety, sulfite-free red wine. Organic, whole grain, gluten-free flour. Local, Rocky Mountain wildflower honey. It’s not like I’m eating fast food. Lovingly put this stuff together and you have the most amazing muffins, twice-baked potatoes, home-cooked French fries, cookies or pumpkin pie.

Get my drift?

Healthy, real food ingredients, but no excuse to shovel it in. Or, stand with the refrigerator door open, eating giant spoonfuls of home-made, organic whipped cream right out of the bowl (conveniently perched at arm level). Maybe dabbing some on a random, nearby muffin.

Not that I know anyone who would do that.

With 2011 upon us, most people have written up lists of New Year’s resolutions. Exercise more. Eat more veggies. Don’t over-eat. Lose weight. Meditate. Do yoga. Same story each year.

What would your life be like if you really believed that everything you needed, you already had? What would your life be like if you simply spent the year treating your body like the temple that it is? No lists, no resolutions, just respect and commitment.

In the spirit of honesty, I do have a few resolutions, but rather than list them, I’m going to keep them to myself and take this time to express gratitude for my health and make a silent promise (over and over) to honor that through awareness, healthy choices and moderation.

And thank God, there’s no more pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

If you’re interested in increasing your mind/body/food awareness, please check here for a past post I did on food, fuzz, movement and inner space. It includes information on how to incorporate healthy eating habits into your life. It’s also a guideline to an anti-inflammatory diet and includes a video that will take you deep inside.

* I can’t end this without a footnote from Heidi B. When I thought about writing this post, I emailed Heidi to ask permission to use her name and comments. Her response to my email was, “Sure! You can use me. I’m still struggling, but totally aware. Yea!”

I love that.

Awareness. That’s the key. The more we understand the magic of what’s going on inside our bodies, the more likely we are to appreciate and take care of this wonderful creation, even as we struggle along.

Wishing you peace, love, awareness and small steps towards more radiant health in 2011.
Melissa
P.S. Please ignore the fact that my last 3 posts were for gluten-free cherry cobbler, pumpkin pie muffins (the boyfriend bait version) and pistachio cranberry brownies. Hey, this food blogging thing is a struggle.

fuzz food inflammation and movement

If I had more room in the title bar, I’d call this post, “inflammation, fuzz, food, inner space, enlightenment, movement, and twisty-bendy stuff.”

In case you’re wondering about the photo, cotton candy has nothing to do with this post, other than it looks exactly like fuzz. I wanted something that would visually compare to fuzz in case you wanted to opt out of the cadaver video.

I bet you’re curious, though.

I’m a nutritionist, but my college education began with a degree in exercise physiology. Because both disciplines are science-based, I’ve ended up taking anatomy, physiology, and bio-chem two different times, from different teachers, at different institutions. My first semester (20-some years ago) of anatomy included a cadaver lab. It was there that I found my religion (seriously) and began my intense fascination with how our bodies work from the inside out.

Before I was diagnosed with celiac disease, joint pain and inflammation where a daily thing for me. Nothing debilitating, but it was annoying and constant. I even slept with my arms in a pillow-version of traction because my shoulders hurt so much. I attributed the pain to a lifetime of physical activity and overuse. To make a long story short, a gluten-free, whole foods diet and lots of yoga solved my problems. No more inflammation and very little pain — as long as I eat well and move often. Bend, stretch, twist, twirl, and dance.

I’ll let somanaut Gil Hedley explain why. His approach to teaching anatomy and physiology is humorous, creative, and spiritually enlightening. He’s also brilliant and charmingly geeky, which I absolutely love.

Did that help (and isn’t Gil charming)? Doesn’t fuzz look like cotton candy? Well, there’s no need for either.

Movement is key, but so is food.

On to inflammation, which isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a natural and protective response by the immune system to infectious agents, toxins, tissue injury, temperature extremes, cooties and other icky things. It’s a bad thing when the response is misdirected, never shuts off and targets healthy tissue. Because inflammation is a general and non-specific protective mechanism, the response is similar whether the damage is caused by gluten cooties, poor diet, disease, a fall down the stairs or a misdirected hammer.

So — what can we do to decrease inflammation and enhance our health?

Make anti-inflammatory foods your foundation and twist, bend, stretch, twirl, and shake your booty every day. You might also consider some beneficial body work.

Here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. Eliminate or minimize processed foods, fast food and junk food. Avoid products containing trans-fats, partially hydrogenated fats, high-fructose corn syrup, chemicals, additives and other “non-food” ingredients. Sugar is also pro-inflammatory.
2. Choose healthy fats such as extra-virgin olive oil, coconut, avocados, nuts and seeds.
3. Avoid soda pop and opt for old-fashioned water or green tea. If you choose to drink alcohol, an occasional glass of red wine has been shown to be beneficial.
4. Choose a wide variety of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables. Organic is best. Strive for 9 to 10 servings per day. Eat more veggies than fruit (5-6 servings of veggies, 3-4 servings of fruit). This is just a guideline.
5. Eat healthy non-gluten grains like teff, montina, quinoa, amaranth and brown rice. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils) are also a rich source of high-quality plant protein.
6. Choose nuts, seeds, raisins and dates for snacks or an occasional small serving of dark chocolate when you need a “sweet fix.”
7. Season foods with health-enhancing herbs and spices like garlic, capsicum, turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, parsley and cilantro. This list is endless.
8. The right balance of EFAs (essential fatty acids) is important. In general, omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. I’ll do an entire post on this one of these days.
9. If you choose to eat animal products, 100% grass-fed, organic choices are best. Meat and dairy products from 100% grass-fed animals contain higher levels of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which studies show may fight inflammation and have anti-cancer properties.
10. Reduce stress, think positive thoughts, get adequate sleep and exercise.

Bottom line?

Your body truly is a temple. Treat it as such. Go inside, learn as much as you can about the inner workings that make up the divine space in which you live. As Gil so eloquently expresses in his book, Reconceiving My Body – Take Two, From The Heart, “I realized that I had been sitting for my whole life outside the doorsteps of the most finely wrought Cathedral ever built, without ever having gotten off my arse to walk through the doors and have a look about. My body in all its complexity represented the wonders and workings of God’s creation. Rather than being some insufferable obstacle to spiritual growth, my body as a temple could become my greatest resource for beholding the hidden face of the Divine within me.”

Go forth and explore inner space. The more we understand the magic of what’s going on inside our bodies, the more likely we are to appreciate and take care of this wonderful creation.

Peace, love and inner space!
Melissa

springtime renewal & detox guidelines

Spring is the season of awakening, time to crawl out from under the weight of winter and transition into summer. It’s a perfect time to move away from heavy foods to lighter fare and commit to a mild cleanse to refresh, renew and revitalize. My form of detoxifying is simple and easy (except for that no wine, no coffee thing). Nothing extreme, nothing weird, nothing expensive – just a chance to focus on nourishing foods and get rid of the bad habits that periodically creep back in.

My dictionary describes detoxification as, the metabolic process of removing toxic substances or neutralizing toxic properties from the body (normally a function of the liver); an application that is intended to relieve illness or injury.

Detoxifying cleanses are normally safe and very beneficial, but check with your health care professional first, especially if you’re pregnant, nursing or have a chronic disease.

Melissa’s spring cleanse/detox
guidelines

1. Organic
Organic food is free of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics and is generally easier for the body to break down, absorb and assimilate. Some studies show organic foods to be higher in nutritional value, but what they lack is almost more important, especially while cleansing. The point of detoxifying is to get rid of the nasty stuff from your system, not add to it. We’re living in a different world than our ancestors did and are exposed to 40,000 – 50,000 chemicals that didn’t exist decades ago. The average American (eating the Standard American Diet, also known as the SAD diet) ingests around 120 pounds of additives per year. Choose organic, whole foods whenever possible.

2. Avoid
Eliminate all gluten-containing grains (whether you need to in normal life or not), dairy (with a few exceptions); most soy foods; sugar; caffeine; soda; alcohol; meat; all processed, packaged, and fast food. Cut back on starches (potatoes, yams, peas and beans) and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant).

3. The base
Eat a combination of fresh organic vegetables, a good portion of them raw. Eat more vegetables than fruit and choose fresh fruit over dried (although unsulphered, unsweetened dried fruit is fine in moderation). Use olive oil for salad dressings, coconut oil for cooking and ghee for other uses (if you like ghee, which is clarified butter). Unfiltered raw honey or stevia can be used for occasional sweetening. Pastured organic eggs, naturally sweetened goat yogurt or kefir, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa and teff are fine in moderation. So are raw cheese, nuts and seeds (again, in moderation).

4. Rough it up
Eat lots of whole, high-fiber foods. Fiber in the form of raw veggies and fruit is instrumental in helping to move toxins out of the body. Fiber is high on my list of important substances, but add it slowly or you’ll explode (and it won’t be pretty). At the least, you’ll be feeling icky until you get used to the sweeping effects on your digestive system.

5. Flush it out
Drink lots of water while cleansing, especially since you’ll be increasing your fiber intake. Water, water, water! Divide your weight in half — that’s the amount of water in ounces you should drink daily. If you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 75 ounces of water per day, which is about nine or ten 8-ounce glasses.

6. Turn up the heat
Not in your house, but in your body. Exercise daily and sweat it out. I love yoga for detoxifying as it’s bendy and twisty and stimulates fluid movement in the body. It helps wring things out. Sweating and deep breathing helps eliminate toxins via the breath and skin. This is one of the most important components of detoxifying, healthy living and thriving – movement and developing a conscious mind/body connection. Skip the high-powered pounding on the stairmaster or the 80s-style aerobics classes and opt for yoga, walking, hiking, dancing or tai chi (choose less intense and more calming exercise). Most importantly, have fun and choose activities you enjoy and will do daily.

7. Eat less
According to my Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition book, if you live for 65 years or longer, you will have consumed more than 70,000 meals and disposed of 50 tons of food. FIFTY TONS OF FOOD?! Wow, that’s almost creepy. Actually, it is creepy. Okay, I will admit to eating more calories than I need a good part of the time, but spending a little less time at the trough makes us realize that we’ll not only survive, but we’ll be much healthier if we don’t super-size everything.

8. Just say no to stress
Stress can sabotage your good intentions, so emphasize rest, relaxation and positive emotions. Yoga, meditation and deep breathing help eliminate stress.

9. Sleep 7 to 9 hours per night
Uninterrupted, rejuvenating, high-quality sleep is essential for good health. Naps are also good, but try to get consistent and sound sleep at night. This is important on so many levels – from slowing the aging process to losing weight. For a detailed post on sleep, please check here. (This is a tough one for me as I don’t want to miss anything!)

Go forth and nourish your own personal garden (that would be your body, mind and spirit)!
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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