Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Make Oatmeal...Right

I could barely contain myself when I read Mark Bittman's latest piece on McDonald's oatmeal earlier this week. As a longtime oatmeal aficionado, I had been noticing the prominent billboard on Juanita Drive near school and wondering how this happened. Is McDonald's trying to convince the public that they offer healthy breakfast options? As Bittman points out, their oatmeal is anything but. Moreover, I like how he highlights the fact that even fast food cannot make oatmeal any "faster" than it already is. Waiting in line and ordering is already twice as long as you need to make your own, cheaper, better, more nutritious and customized to your taste preference. I make different types of oatmeal depending on my mood and you can too. Just mix and match from this list:

Types of oats:

Instant oats - These are often found in packets so I usually keep a box on hand for days when I really have no time and just grab one and make it at school or at work with a little hot water.

Rolled oats - I generally prefer these to instant oats. You can buy them in bulk and they are cheap and accessible. I like Bob's Red Mill gluten free rolled oats and prepare them the same way I would instant oats - either adding hot water or putting them in the microwave. (Just be sure not to put them in for too long or they will overflow and make a mess!)

Steel cut oats - These are my favorite and only take a bit of extra prep. You can soak them overnight and heat them for five minutes or cook them straight for about 20 minutes. They are nuttier and heartier than other oats and I've found that even people who don't think they like oatmeal enjoy this variety.


Water - This is how I do it. Quick and cheap and easy.

Milk - Regular, soy, almond, hemp, coconut. Choose your favorite.

(my favorite part!)

Blueberries - Fresh if I have on hand, otherwise frozen ones are easy.

Blackberries - In the summer I pick them from my backyard.

Shredded coconut - Rich and delicious.

Nut butter - Adds protein and a creamy, nutty flavor.

Ground flaxseed - Adds some ALA and additional fiber.

Dried fruit - Raisins, craisins, currants, apricots and cherries.

Chopped nuts - Walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashew.

Chocolate chips - My sister's favorite.

Sliced apples or bananas

Honey or Maple Syrup if you have a sweet tooth

Oats are a great source of soluble fiber which has many health benefits, including lowering cholesterol. The grain itself is gluten-free but cross-contamination often leaves them with traces of gluten, so celiacs beware. Oats contain protein but adding some nuts will increase the protein content of your meal. With the right fixins your oatmeal may be packed with even more nutrients and antioxidants but will taste delicious and keep you satisfied and fuller, longer. Mark Bittman also posted these alternative ways to use oats.

Not all oatmeals are created equal. Leave it to McDonald's to adulterate a heart healthy breakfast.

What are your favorite oatmeal toppings?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Under Pressure, Overweight

I recently came across two very different but worthwhile documentaries, Pressure Cooker and Killer at Large: Why Obesity is America's Greatest Threat. The three-day weekend (and my resolve to take some time off from school work) afforded me the time to watch them both (and, in case you were concerned, also engage in some physical activity).

Pressure Cooker follows the story of three high school seniors enrolled in a culinary arts program at an inner city school in Philadelphia. Under the guidance of a strict but loving instructor, they compete for scholarships that will enable them to pursue better opportunities. The three students are incredible to watch - they are smart and funny, honest and ambitious - and each deal with very difficult challenges in their home life. They work feverishly to perfect their technique in the kitchen to win the C-CAP scholarships and the result is an inspiring film that combines the suspense of Waiting for Superman with the passion and uplift of Mad Hot Ballroom.

Killer at Large, on the other hand, is far less hopeful. It features some familiar talking heads of food politics, like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, with some less recognizable ones, like "America's Rabbi" Shmuley Boteach, writer/director Neil LaBute, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona and President Bill Clinton. The film focuses on the problem of obesity in America, arguing that its magnitude and impact are greater than anyone has yet acknowledged, and presents a very comprehensive picture of the causes and factors contributing to the astonishing statistics today. Covering everything from body image to agricultural policy to evolutionary biology, Killer at Large doesn't seem to miss a single fat-related story - anecdotal, economic or political - in the past ten years. While much of it is neatly regurgitated from other documentaries in this "social concern" genre, I appreciated its scope and refusal to reduce the issues around obesity to any one underlying cause. I especially liked the section devoted to the marketing of junk food to children (see baby breastfeeding on a burger bun, to the right). According to one statistic cited, for every hour that a preschooler watches television, his/her risk of obesity increases 6% - every hour!

Docs like this can potentially reinforce the stigma surrounding obesity - hard to believe that there is still a stigma when nearly 65% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese - but Killer at Large does a good job at conveying that many cultural, political and biological forces are at play. It repeatedly argues that the problem isn't one of personal responsibility, but asserts that the solution is. But we all know it's not that simple. Given the enormity of the situation, it is unlikely that the obesity epidemic will be "fixed" anytime soon. Access to information, affordable healthy food, and time for physical activity are obstacles that need to be addressed. While Pressure Cooker highlights that low-income, inner city teens face tremendous barriers to achievement, the amount of ambition and hard work it takes still may not be enough to succeed. Only through the commitment, support and tough love of a teacher are these students able to rise above their circumstances. So who will be the teachers supporting the nation's diet and lifestyle changes? All I know is that every day I sit in class with 40 of them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Question of Control

On Wednesday afternoons I volunteer for a program called Cooking Matters that offers cooking and nutrition classes for low-income communities. This month I've been teaching the nutrition component of a class for Spanish-speaking adults, many of whom have diabetes. The participants are curious and motivated and ask so many questions I'm never quite sure if I teach the lesson I planned but somehow this class is always the highlight of my week. Today we reviewed many of the lessons we've learned together and when it was over I walked out with one of the members of the class. She expressed how sad she was that our class would be ending soon. She had learned so much and her blood sugar, which had been in the 500-600 range, had dropped week after week, as she changed her diet and prepared the meals we'd covered in class. This morning, she said, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry or thank God when she tested her fasting blood glucose and it was 84. She left me with these words: "my life changed when we were talking in class and I heard the words 'you have control over your body.' That was it for me. I cleaned out my fridge and stopped my snacking. My blood sugar came down, I lost inches and I feel better." Teaching personal responsibility can be a very empowering tool to help people get over the obstacles that prevent them from taking steps toward improving their quality of life. I have seen it and experienced it myself. And yet, when I got home today I read this powerful piece by a rabbi of mine in Seattle who wrote very convincingly that surrendering complete control is a spiritual practice necessary toward improving one's quality of life. So which is it?

As anyone who has ever tried to change his/her diet knows, the belief that the consumer/eater/dieter is in the position to make and uphold such decisions is of the utmost importance. Believing oneself in control enables a change in behavior and the commitment to maintain it. At the same time, in the cosmic sense, the need for control will constrain and restrict one's ability to fully engage with others, to be vulnerable and, perhaps most importantly, to cope when things don't turn out the way we hoped, wanted, expected. So are we in control or not?

First it's worth distinguishing between losing control and letting go of control. Losing control assumes that we once had it, that we are in control of our lives, our fate, our destiny while letting go of control is a choice to cede the need to know, to dictate, to approve, to higher powers and to instead determine how to flow with what unfolds before us. Letting go is not a passive state of simply allowing life to happen - I think of it more like the (perhaps dated) video game Tetris. We can't choose what pieces fall, but we can determine how to make them fit correctly. We have the power to shift the pieces around and move them to the right place. In this sense, then, we can exercise a degree of control and are active agents in our lives.

Eating right and exercising are all within our control. This is a message I hope to convey to patients for years to come. And yet, it does not insure that we will not develop cancer or get struck by a car or fall victim to an unfair outcome. But surrendering to that which is beyond our control while living by the ideals that are within it creates a liminal space where this tricky balance of life can dissolve into a graceful dance, a deceptively seamless routine that appears rehearsed, as though it were meant to be.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Get Up, Stand Up

One of the most glaring differences between my life in New York City and my life in Seattle is the amount of walking I do. In New York City, the subway and buses are often faster than driving anyway, and they save time, money and a lot of frustration (though often present a whole other set). Thanks to this situation the average New Yorker walks faster and farther than most other cities. Even growing up in Queens, far more residential and less accessible than Manhattan, I would walk to my friends' houses and then to the movies, the pizza store, the comic book store, each over a mile away. It was exciting to know that all I needed were my two feet and the good sense to look both ways before crossing the street and I was set. What I took for granted at the time was how much I was moving around in my daily life just to get to where I need to go. Living in Seattle, a city far less accessible by foot, I miss the ease of a walker-friendly city.

To be fair, there are those who walk to work or live in slightly more walker-friendly areas like Capitol Hill or Belltown, but most Seattleites are not walkers. Now Seattle is certainly bike-friendly. Despite the rain there are many committed bike commuters and cyclists and on a good day I count myself as one of them. But most of the time movement and physical activity are things I have to seek out on my own, and usually do, except during those crazy weeks when the course load piles up and I regret returning to school (the past week was one such week).

Studies repeatedly show that sitting for long periods of time cuts your lifespan (something to think about next time you grumble about not having a seat on the subway) and that walking around or even simply standing supports longevity. This news has made classmates of mine into big proponents of the treadmill desk and I can't say I disagree.

Today I was feeling the lack of mobility and since the rain was falling particularly hard I took my book and headed to the gym to pretend that one of the treadmills was my desk. I was reading while walking slowly with an incline but looked up at one point and noticed that one of the large flatscreen televisions was tuned in to the Food Network and was broadcasting Emeril's cooking show. As the camera closed in on the pan sauteing onions and bacon I felt sick to my stomach and looked around to see if anyone else was cringing at the sight. Since my gym is one of the sponsors of The Biggest Loser it's not uncommon to see the weight loss competition broadcast. That has always struck me as odd enough to watch while working out, though I'm sure some people find it motivational. But watching the cooking show while exercising seemed downright pornographic so I actually stopped the treadmill, went to the front desk and asked them to change the channel. They asked what I wanted to watch instead. I told them I didn't care, but the Food Network just seemed inappropriate. After I spoke up several other members told me they were thinking the same thing. I didn't start a revolution but I was proud that I stood up and spoke my mind. Too often we simply accept the status quo, because we are comfortable as is. Maybe we don't feel the issue is important enough or we're relying on someone else to speak up. But sitting complacently on your behind not only does a disservice to the greater public, it also takes years off your life. So get up, speak up and maybe you'll get to stick around a while longer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cookoo for Cocoa?

When I think Valentine's Day I think flowers and chocolate. When I think flowers and chocolate I think fair trade and worker's rights. Here's why you should too.

Most cut flowers in the United States are imported. Over 100,000 workers in Latin America work in the industry, cutting and exporting roses and carnations, many subject to labor rights violations. Flower workers in African countries like Uganda make less than $1 a day. Similarly, the cocoa industry is known for its unfair wages. In Ivory Coast, some cocoa farmers average only about 20 cents/lb of dried cocoa. The price of chocolate bars has not significantly increased in decades due to price fixing by the major corporations.

Price of cocoa and sugar over past 50 years.

As fate would have it, last week
I had two guests from the Kallari Cooperative in Ecuador staying at my house while they were meeting with distributors and consumers around Seattle. Farmers at this cooperative not only grow the beans but process them too, cutting costs and enabling themselves to make close to $2.00/lb dried cocoa. They taught me about the bean to bar process and also about the fair trade model itself, actually raising questions about how fair it really is (a debate for another time). For now, we have certifications like fair trade to indicate to consumers that these companies are upholding certain ethical, fair wage principles.

So while flowers and chocolate may show someone your husband/wife/girlfriend/partner/best friend that you are thinking about them, buying fair trade shows that you're thinking of human rights worldwide as well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Smart Balance

That fine balance I call life is suddenly neither fine nor balanced. After several night of interrupted sleep I finally submitted my internship applications so now I can focus on my other work. As I write this I am also working on a treatment plan for a case study (I'm recommending my patient consider adding phytosterols to his diet to lower his cholesterol), prepping for the actual patient I will see in the clinic tomorrow morning, paying my bills, catching up on emails, preparing a presentation on weight loss supplements and applying for a scholarship. It has been two weeks since I practiced yoga, one week since I went to the gym, three days since I went for a run and a mere five minutes since my last piece of chocolate. I am firm believer in hard work, in realizing potential, but also in compassion and self-care. After six weeks of the former it is time to indulge in the latter.

Why am I writing about this now? A week alone there's so much other exciting news? Diet soda linked to stroke! Michelle Obama serves kielbasa at the White House Superbowl Party! Seattle has a new organic drive thru grocery store! My answer would be that while these are all thrilling tidbits of information, I felt more of a need to write about something that has recently come up for me repeatedly: I believe in health and wellness but belief does not automatically create health and wellness. Like standing poses in yoga - the minute you congratulate yourself for finding balance, you lose it. And I have certainly lost it.

For the past few weeks I've been in work mode every single day without a break. One afternoon, drained after seeing patients I went to the acupuncture department and begged them to zap me with some energy (they did). Having burnt out last time I was in grad school I can recognize the red flags - lack of exercise, sleep and time with friends, too much work, chocolate and takeout. And I write about this now because tomorrow I will see patients who are struggling with weight, high cholesterol or high blood pressure and they will tell me that they're too busy to prep breakfast or bring their lunch or cook dinner or exercise and I will nod in complete understanding. And I will help them troubleshoot and redistribute their time and resources to improve their diet and lifestyle and well-being. I will try to convince them the importance of self care, the ability we have to make decisions to positively impact our health. And if I don't believe what I'm saying they'll see right through me. And so in preparation for Valentine's Day, a day dedicated to love and appreciation, I will forego anymore chocolate, pencil in a yoga class to my schedule and show some self love by going to sleep before 11pm.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


A few weeks ago I was sitting at school with Grocery Gal, discussing Top Chef preparations when one of our professors came over to us and said he had googled himself and found a conversation we had about him online. We were both slightly horrified and then realized he was referring to a certain innocuous but embarrassing blogpost of mine that had mentioned him by name. I didn't ask him why he had googled himself, but thought about it this week while googling myself. I was working on internship applications and was trying to recall some work I'd done years ago and conducted a lazy Google search using only my name. The first three pages of hits yielded sites of others who share my exact name and I was fascinated to learn how similar their interests were to my own.

1. The Professor
A PhD. in Edinburgh: lecturer, researcher and writer. "An urban cultural geographer...interested in community-based cultural festivals, creative industries and the analysis of government policies for socio-economic funding and development." Did I mention she graduated Princeton?

2. The Doctor
An Ob/Gyn, focusing her career on women's health.

3. The Designer
An award-winning book cover and graphic designer.

4. The Academic
A graduate student with a study interest in Jewish identity and memory in contemporary Latin-American literature.

5. The Athlete
A NJ high school student who fences for the women's epee team.

6. The Artist
A photographer with a photo credit of this Philly paper's coverage of a local food co-op.

7. The Writer
A media journalist and critic, linked here for covering Ruth Reichl's Gourmet magazine.

I certainly never thought that my name was unique. Since high school I've been known by my last name because there is often more than one Rebecca in my group of friends. But seeing my same first and last name shared with many other accomplished women was somewhat startling. I also noticed that the themes that emerged - academics, writing, art and design, health, food and culture - were broad enough, and yet struck eerily close to home. (The fencing one is striking as well because my father was a high school fencing star who attended Columbia on a fencing scholarship and later competed in the NCAA. It was also amusing because I get personal emails from this girl's mother who regularly confuses her daughter's email address and mine.) Reviewing my Googlegangers interests, experiences and professions, I can't help but think they all reflect different aspects of my own personality and that someone we are somehow all parts of the sum total, the Platonic ideal, the full potential of what a "Rebecca F."can achieve. I consider contacting each one of them to verify that we are indeed as connected as I believe, that there is truly something in a name, a deeply spiritual cosmic meaning to sounds and letters and words that links us in ways we do not understand. More importantly, I wonder which Rebecca F. will I be?
The academic, the writer, the artist, the athlete, the critic, the health professional, the foodie already exist. And having applied for graduation, it's a little too late to start another career path. In the meantime, as I continue to work on applications for next year and consider what my next step will be, I can rest assured that there are Rebecca F.'s who have come before me, and there will be many more who come after me but it seems that I am in good company. I am reminded of the rabbinic saying in Hebrew "tov shem tov mishemen tov" which means that a good name is better than good oil. I am proud to take part in this pantheon of "good names," and I can only hope that I can leave an imprint so that one day my personal Google hit will appear on one of the first 3 pages of results.