Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Even Better Than the Real Thing

I grew up during the 1980's. I would later learn that this was a time of war - the Cold War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanon War, but back then I only knew the Cola Wars between Coca Cola and Pepsi. And while the Cola Wars may have ended, with Coke going on to become one of the most widely recognized brands worldwide, the number of casualties continues to grow as the American public's waistlines expand and grow with increased consumption of empty liquid calories.

I am one of the lucky survivors; I don't like soda.When I was eight or nine I had the flu and stayed home from school, slurping chicken soup and noodles. After a day or two I got bored of this and decided to introduce some sweet variety into my diet. I went straight for Coca Cola and chocolate ice cream, but my immune system was in overdrive, affecting my sense of smell and taste and these favorite foods tasted awful. Eventually I learned to once again enjoy chocolate ice cream, but had developed a lifelong aversion to Coke. Over the years I would on rare occasion drink diet soda, but for the most part I lost my desire for soda before the age of ten. Today it doesn't even cross my mind to buy it for guests. The proposed soda tax, then, would not affect my life at all. I'm going to talk about it anyway.

The issue first attracted my attention last year when I was visiting New York and noticed the anti-soda ad campaigns. Mayor Bloomberg's health crusades had already changed the face of New York in so many ways. First he banned smoking in bars, which not only reduced secondhand smoke but saved New Yorkers countless dollars on dry cleaning bills (if dry cleaners were unionized they might have fought this proposal). Then he banned the use of trans fats in restaurants. Finally, he launched ad campaigns against soda citywide and proposed that the state impose a tax on soda - an idea that is being taken seriously by Governor Patterson.

There are many sides to this debate, but here's how I see it: not everyone who drinks soda will become obese and diabetic just like not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer or emphysema. The arguments then for obesity, diabetes, rising health care costs, etc may not be universally applicable. However, we can all agree that soda has no nutritional value whatsoever. It should therefore be a luxury - an item that you can purchase if you enjoy it, albeit at a higher cost, with the additional tax money funding an improved health care system. Foods that we need in order to subsist and live healthfully should be more affordable, not less, than cans of soda that temporarily quench our thirst but leave us hungry for actual nutrients. When a can of Coke is cheaper than a piece of fruit, it's time to reassess our food system. I hope that one day this will mean that quality fruits and vegetables, free of chemical toxins, can be available for less. Until then, we should be willing to pay more for soda.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fish Food for Thought

When a relationship between two people doesn't work out, there used to be the consolatory saying, "there are plenty of other fish in the sea." But this is no longer the case, because with fish populations depleted from our oceans, there aren't other fish in the sea. What, then, is a fish lover like me to do?

I've always loved salmon. I don't remember the first time I tried it but I know that sometime after my mother and I read Andrew Weil's "8 Weeks to Optimum Health" when I was in high school, it became a staple in my diet. It didn't need to be dressed up too much, it's pink hue and rich, fatty flavor were enough to satisfy my simple taste. I thought I had it good. Then I moved to the Northwest.

When I drove from New York to Seattle just two summers ago, I spent a couple of weeks on the road, eating fairly well until I left Chicago. Relying on quick and easy foods, my vegetarian diet (read: cereal, rice cakes, peanut butter and larabars) was leaving me craving something heartier. I was in need of protein, and I really wanted fish, so when my friend Julie's family took me out to dinner the first night I arrived in Seattle I was excited to see wild salmon on the menu. But I barely recognized the dish when it arrived at my table. I'd never seen salmon that color - not a pale, pastel pink but a bright, bold almost orange-red fish that was completely delicious. For the next seven days I ate salmon every chance I could. When Seattleites would tell me they'd grown sick of salmon having been raised on it in some shape or form every night of the week I was incredulous and envious.

Last week I was cleaning my room while watching this year's TED talks, and came across Dan Barber's talk, "How I fell in love with a fish." He provides an entertaining overview of the realities of the fish farming business and the need and potential for building more sustainable practices. I was heartbroken. And if that wasn't enough of an eye-opener, the feature article in tomorrow's New York Times magazine, "Tuna's End," drives home the realities of the future of fish (in this case the bluefin tuna). As Paul Greenberg writes, "Their global decline is a warning that we just might destroy our last wild food."

From a nutritional standpoint fish are a boon to the health conscious: they are a great source of protein and essential fatty acids (ie. "good fats"). But over the years there many people have been reluctant to embrace fish due to growing concerns around mercury levels and farming practices. Yesterday I came across another reason for concern: the FDA is considering approval for genetically altered salmon. Add to the mix the depletion of entire aquatic species, and frankly that's a bit too much guilt to chew on. Responsible consumers can stay abreast of the latest updates through the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. One way to ensure the future of fish is to protect the health of our waters. Oxbow Farms, for example, has an oxbow lake that serves as an important salmon habitat and they are certified Salmon-Safe, maintaining fish-friendly farming practices. This just another reminder that we are all part of the same broader web of environmental interconnectedness.

Right now the only thing I can do is be mindful of these issues, limit my fish consumption to support fishing practices that I agree with and make sure to spread this information to others. And when I feel morally taxed by all these principles, I can kick back and play with a brainteaser: how to pronounce ghoti.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eating Healthfully May Be Good For You, New Study Suggests

Last week's Well blog on the New York Times website made a radical claim: "Eating Brown Rice to Cut Diabetes Risk". The piece focuses on a recent study from Harvard that concludes: "Substitution of whole grains, including brown rice, for white rice may lower risk of type 2 diabetes." Really? Is this news to anyone? It doesn't take a degree in nutrition to know that eating whole grains - that is, the entire grain without the removal of the bran - is better than eating a refined grain in which the bran is removed. The bran provides fiber, which has become a buzzword in the food biz, touted for all sorts of health benefits. Fiber is an interesting topic in and of itself because the different types, soluble vs insoluble, confer different results, but most whole foods will contain some measure of both. Whole grain also have a lower glycemic index (GI) than refined ones, referring to the rate at which they elevate blood sugar levels. In this there are gradations - long grain brown rice will have a lower GI than short grain brown rice, but brown rice overall has a lower GI than white rice. This may be very significant when discussing the risk of developing diabetes. Additionally, whole grains provide magnesium, an important micronutrient that may also account for the lower rates of diabetes in those who eat whole grains.

The study does have some limitations but overall I don't know that anyone is trying to say that it is wrong in its conclusion. And while I certainly believe in the importance of evidence-based research, I sometimes wonder why so much funding is supporting studies of interventions that are already well known, widely understood, and frankly, common sensical. (Really, soda consumption may be linked to obesity?) About two months ago I signed up for e-bulletins on new research from MedlinePlus. Since then I've received daily digests with quick links to all sorts of health research news. Here's a sampling from this past two weeks:

1. Least Healthy More Apt to Think Genes Explain Disease Risk: Survey also found these people were not as interested in information on lifestyle changes

2. Early School Start Times Raise Risk of Teen Car Crashes: When high school classes began later, number of accidents dropped, study found

3. Obesity Can Take Toll on Sex Life: Stigma may lead to fewer sexual encounters, poorer sexual health, study finds

4. Stricter Rules Can Steer Kids Away From TV: And physically active kids watch less television, researchers report

5. Poor aerobic fitness, low physical activity linked to greater high blood pressure risk

Where's the big science here? Obviously I've chosen specific examples of studies that make my point. I do believe there is a place for research and it plays an important role in the scientific process. But does every intervention really need to be studied in this way? Because at the end of the day all studies have limitations and the best results yielded will still demand further research to back them up. Which is not to say that we should stop conducting research, but just recognize that research is not the be-all, end-all.

Here are some of the concerns I have: research gives the placebo effect a bad rap: if people think they're being treated and they actually see improved results, isn't that a good thing? Doesn't that in fact point to the effect of the mind in the healing process? Also, research may show a likely relationship, but how that translates for the individual will vary. Yes, most people who exercise and eat whole grains and fruits and vegetables may have lower risks for cancer and diabetes and heart disease but they may not. Each of us has our own genetic map and that living healthfully can only go so far in determining your health outcome. In fact, this very news may impact whether someone even bothers to take care of his or her health (see study #1 above).

The important role of research is to provide us with enough certainty to make educated decisions. But there are some decisions that we are well-equipped to make on own. So next time you're at a Thai restaurant, order the brown rice. And while you're at it, have some green tea.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


On this father's day, a word of thanks to a man who loves bread, hates traffic, and taught me that the Rolling Stones were always better than the Beatles.

There are many traits I've acquired from my dad. A love for classic rock. Unruly frizzy hair. A sometimes annoyingly loud laugh. An intolerance for Jersey drivers. The inability to tell a story as concisely as it could be. Occasional inappropriateness (warning: this post might be one such example). But lately I seem to have also acquired my dad's stomach issues. He has often been the butt of bathroom-related jokes; when I was a kid I didn't understand the connotation of the "out of service" sign friends had given him to take and hang on the bathroom doorknob. But over the years I learned, hearing my mother repeatedly warn him, "You shouldn't eat that. It's not good for you" - "good for you" was not a reference to the nutritional impact of a food, rather it's likelihood of causing him gastrointestinal distress. My mom told me that his stomach situation is now so widely recognized that a mere acquaintance standing near my father in line for a buffet at a community affair recently suggested he not partake of a certain food that would likely not "agree" with him. I find myself at a similar point, where friends and acquaintances alike are aware of my GI dysfunction and dietary restrictions and do not hesitate to let me know when I can or cannot eat something.

Having your digestive health as a matter of public record can be a bit embarrassing and invasive (though to a nutrition student it can also be oddly fascinating!), but I try to learn from my father whose general life approach is to laugh and not take himself too seriously.

Ciao, Papa!

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Locavore Lesson

I'd be lying if I called myself a locavore. No it's not a typo - my blog title is a fabricated term "locovore" implying a certain food-related loco en la cabeza-ness - whereas the term locavore refers to a person who eats food grown or produced within their locale. While I am fortunate to live in a region that offers some amazing products - salmon, apples, greens, even amazing chocolate - I still regularly consume bananas, avocados, dates, coconuts, mangos and peaches, none of which would last a day growing in Washington state. Most of the time I don't even think twice about it but on occasion when I feel the need to rationalize those purchases I tell myself that California isn't really that far away (though I was recently told that Seattle to SoCal is like New York to New Orleans so I can't pretend that's anything resembling local). And when I'm not in total denial, I actually do enjoy buying locally at farmer's markets, co-ops and small local businesses, fickle and unpredictable though their selection may be.

This year I feel it more than ever. If you live in the Northwest or are Facebook friends with someone who does you probably know that for the past few months the weather has not been especially pleasant. We had a mild winter with promise of an early spring but mother nature thoughtlessly renegged and we were stuck with months of cold and rainy weather instead. Most locals swear that's normal for this time of year, but with reports that May 2010 was the warmest month on record - like ever - I felt like Seattle, was well, left out in the cold.

As a result of the weather, local farmers had to contend with more rain and later frost than intended, which negatively impacted the early planting, yielding a very different season that last year. I see this weekly now that my CSA has started. Two weeks ago I started to receive my deliveries from our neighbors at Oxbow Farm and the start of this season feels particularly slow. I also remember that this time last year there was an overabundance of cherries on the streets, sold off the backs of trucks and in the supermarkets. I couldn't escape the cherries (nor did I want to!), but not so this year. And that's the difference between a locavore and someone who shops for the same produce all year long at Whole Foods. When you're relying on local agriculture you eat seasonally and have to subject yourself to the whims of climate and nature. You may have expectations but there is always the possibility of disappointment, of learning that plants that didn't grow as expected. (Where were the figs this year??) I admire the locavores' sheer willingness to subject themselves to such uncertainty when easier, more convenient options exist. But within their principled purchasing lies an important lesson, one that I could learn from: let go of expectations and simply be grateful for what is.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Final Meal

On Thursdays I bring a knife to school. Not because I'm afraid the ND students will bully me for some lunch money but because I start my day with Therapeutic Cooking class. Taking an 8am class has been a challenge for me ever since I started college, strange considering that throughout high school I left my house daily before 6:30am. Maybe that's precisely why I cannoy seem to get to early classes on time anymore - there's no school bus sitting idly outside my house, no mother screaming to me that everyone is waiting, no pressure but my own guilt for walking in late, missing pop quizzes and appearing inconsiderate and irresponsible. But I'm Jewish so living with guilt is a way of life and certainly not enough to get me out the door before 7:30 in the morning.

Today proved no different despite being my last day of school. I was running a bit late to meet my classmates Haleh, JoAnne and Julie with whom I'd be presenting our "final" meal. At my school we take cooking very seriously, and despite the fact that my very last final of spring quarter was not an exam, but involved cooking a meal, it was still a formidable task and presented the last divide between me and my summer vacation. If this seems totally kooky, let me me explain a bit more of what the project entailed. My group was given a case study and was assigned to prepare a meal for our client that would meet her nutritional needs and appeal to her personal preferences.

Rachel, 37 yo female, preparing for conception in 3 mos. Had 1 ovary removed in early 30's d/t ovarian cancer. Lived for 35y on cancer alley in LA. Weak, sluggish constitution. Has struggled with depression but has made huge improvements with counseling. Difficulty with boundaries and expressing emotions. Very motivated to make dietrary changes to support pregnancy and lactation. Eats a relatively healthy diet. Loves comfort foods: burgers, fries, chocolate yet limits secondary to nutrition knowledge.

So here's what we made:

Salmon Patties with Cucumber Salsa
Zucchini and Yam Fries with Gomasio
Braised Greens
Chocolate Berry Mousse with Coconut Whip
Chai Tea

We tried to recast her love for comfort foods in a nutrient dense way, including lots of protein, omega-3s, sea vegetables and antioxidants. The menu was anti-inflammatory and fairly hypoallergenic - pescatarian, gluten-free and dairy-free, though there was tofu in the mousse and eggs in the patties. After making our presentation to the class we got to sit down and enjoy our final meal together, mostly just smiling, savoring, "mmmm"-ing and congratulating ourselves on an awesome meal. Afterward we packed up leftovers, washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen. Not quite the same end of year feeling as completing a final exam, throwing papers in the year and running out into the sunshine. But now I'm officially on summer vacation until the last week in September, and that tastes pretty darn good.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Free Rice

A few years ago someone sent me the link to the website Free Rice and when my mind would wonder on slow days at work, I would amuse myself by testing my knowledge of the English language. For each correct vocabulary answer the site donates 10 grains of rice to the U.N. World Food Programme so I could at least rationalize the distraction as a humanitarian one. Now I wonder.

Reports from Haiti indicate that the free rice model may not be the best use of foreign aid. Rice is a staple crop in Haiti and parts of the country that were unaffected by the earthquake are now suffering the consequences of free imported rice, which means less money to send children to school. NPR's Planet Money has been telling this story and admits that it's not a black and white issue. Some farmers up north are glad that Haitians are getting much needed food but local vendors are suffering. Additionally, the earthquake has brought attention to an issue that Haiti has been dealing with for more than a decade: that imported American rice typically undersells Haitian rice. Another Plant Money podcast explains why.

The situation boils down to this: should farmers use the food they grow to feed their families or to make enough money to send their kids to school? It reminds me of my trip to Guatemala last year where I saw this same situation firsthand. But it took a natural disaster to bring the spotlight to Guatemala too. Are earthquakes and tropical storms the wake-up calls we need to address the basic human needs of families forced to decide daily between education and hunger?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Peace of Pita

Growing up, falafel day was one of the few days of the month I appreciated being on my elementary school's hot lunch plan. They served pita, falafel, choomus and techina (in the days before I had to check my Hebreo-Arabic pronunciation at the door and resort to the Anglicized "hummus" and "tahini") and we could go back for as many falafel balls as we wanted. The boys in my class would often have falafel ball eating contests. Some kids even put balls in their pockets to save them for an afternoon snack. Falafel evened out the inequities of the school lunchroom, and that was no small feat. So I was not surprised to read about the role falafel and hummus were playing in the global arena - namely the Middle East.

Granted, due to some overshadowing recent events in that region there was little attention paid to the fact that the ongoing hummus wars took a turn in favor of Lebanon, which reclaimed the world record for the largest plate of hummus from Israel. In the meantime, an Israeli chef in NY created the world's largest falafel ball. In light of the current situation in the Middle East, this culinary competition is especially noteworthy. Israeli writer Etgar Keret wrote a piece for Tablet Magazine about watching the televised events with his son, and wrote:
These food wars, which, until that moment, had seemed to be the stupidest thing in the world, were actually a brilliant way of bringing peace to the Middle East. Because it was clear that as long as we and our enemies continue to be stressed out, righteous, revenge-seeking people, our sacred national angers will keep burning and igniting bloody battles. We could channel all that negative energy into the culinary arena instead. Then we could finally turn our ploughshares into forks and our spears into chickpea mashers, and, rather than boasting that our army is the strongest one in the world, we could become the proprietors of its greatest kitchen. And if that works, 14 years from now, when my son is drafted, instead of joining a tank crew he could be assigned to a secret army lab in the Negev where he can help create a monstrous pan of shakshuka, made of a trillion eggs, that will break the existing record and smite the rulers of the north African countries.

When all the terrible wars disappear from the region, along with the real threat to our existence, and are replaced by a monument in the shape of a huge piece of pita, we can finally start following the example of all the other civilized peoples in the word and die of an excess of cholesterol.

May we all merit to see that day.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Compromising on Kombucha?

I hate kombucha. There, I said it. Until now I have kept this bit of information to myself, afraid of inviting judgment from peers at my school of natural medicine, who can be seen imbibing kombucha religiously, either a sample of their own home brew safely stored in a large mason jar or a bottle from one of the new age companies that now offer a variety of flavors and colors so that they can even match it to their outfits on any given day of the week. Drinking it daily, they believe, helps promotes healthy gut flora, its fermented state providing probiotics to the gastrointestinal tract, enhancing digestion and supporting detoxification. Meanwhile I carry around my rooibos or hojicha or occasionally hot water with lemon to keep my hands warm and my throat moist, and quietly blend in with the crowd of hippies healers in the halls. But deep down I am troubled by this fermented tea and wonder how it unexpectedly became the popular new superfood on the block.

Like all of creation kombucha begins with a baby, derived from a mother, which must be given the proper diet and environment to mature and grow. The mother in this case looks like a mushroom but is actually a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY. It dwells in a large glass jar, feeds on sugar that is added with black or green tea, and after a few weeks it becomes a mother itself and yields an enzyme-rich brew that contains probiotics, or “good” bacteria. The resulting tea is pungent, with more bite than apple cider vinegar, and its acidity is precisely why it must be kept in glass; any inferior material would leach into the brew. Eventually this mother spawns a baby that can be separated and placed in its own jar to generate a new batch of kombucha in a continuous circle of life.

I was introduced to this mysterious concoction as a first year student at Bastyr. Invited to a classmate’s home to study biochemistry, my host kindly offered me some tea upon arrival. I accepted and she proceeded to extract some liquid from a questionable source that appeared to be a brownish golden tea separated into several layers, one of them surely a thick pancake of mold. “It’s kombucha – it’s very good for you,” she explained, and that seemed to suffice, at least temporarily as I felt silly for my ignorance. I took a sip and winced, placed the cup down and did not pick it up again for the remainder of the evening. When I got up to leave, my friend insisted on giving me a starter kit, a kombucha baby of my own. She handed me a small jar but made me promise to transfer it to a large one. Where I would acquire such a jar, I wasn’t sure, but I thanked her, took my baby and drive home. When I pulled into my driveway I sat in the driver’s seat staring at the contents of the jar. I couldn’t bring this into my house. What would my non-Bastyrian housemates say? I decided to leave it on the floor of the car until I could plan my next move. Each day I drove to school, to work, to the grocery store and back home again unsure what to do with my adopted baby kombucha. I asked everyone for advice and conducted online research but two weeks later it became clear that I was not going to raise this kombucha. I was not going to transfer it to a larger jar, to feed it the sugar and tea that it needed, and I was increasingly fearful that the bacteria that appeared to be growing was not the “good” kind. One night when I arrived home I finally took the jar out of the car, walked straight up the driveway to this side of the house and disposed of it in my trash. I imagine the raccoons in my yard can now boast the healthiest intestinal microflora of any in Seattle.

Lately some chronic GI issues are making me rethink my stance against kombucha. Can it relieve my discomfort? Long tauted for its health benefits, kombucha is the drink of choice among the intestinally challenged and I wonder whether desperate times may call for a compromise in principles. Maybe I'll ask Jessie for some of her brew.