Tag Archives: Health

Health Rules: Eat in Context

Jack LaLanne said: “If man made it, don’t eat it!” Looking at the average state of health in the nation, Jack just might have been right.

Your body is designed to absorb nutrients in the form they commonly appear in food: as a network of intertwined molecules, often providing much of what we need to absorb and use the nutrients as part of the whole package. Modern “food science” treats forgets this critical interdependency and treats these nutrients as individual, interchangeable parts, isolating, concentrating, and otherwise altering substances out of our food until they barely deserve the title of nutrients.

This modern industrialization of food has created a situation where we often take in these nutrients out of context. They are eaten without the cofactor nutrients necessary for their absorption, and in huge amounts that never would have occurred in nature. This creates imbalances in the body that contribute to the rise of many modern diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and more.

So, how do we bring our own food consumption back into a more healthful, natural context? Here’s a few guidelines to help you choose your food.

1.”If it has a label it stays off my table”. If it has a box, bag or a label and contains multiple ingredients, minimize/avoid it in your diet. Your body will thank you

2. Put down that processed oil! Man-made and highly processed modern oils are often extracted under high heat and pressure with toxic industrial solvents like hexane, and must be bleached and deodorized in order to become sellable (think of them as ‘rancid’). With high levels of Omega 6 fats, these oils tend to be very inflammatory and have been shown to have strong links with the development of diabetes and heart disease.

Example: Margarine, corn and many canola and vegetable oils are NOT healthy, despite claims to the contrary. Excess omega 6 fats and Trans-fats, particularly oxidized (damaged) ones have been strongly linked with increased risks of chronic pain, inflammation, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

3. Ditch the processed starches. careful with foods that convert quickly to sugar: breads, pastas and foods with “starch” on the label (corn starch, tapioca starch, etc) and foods made with flour. Since theses foods have all been highly processed and ground into small particles (normally the work of your stomach), they don’t take very much work for your body to break down and convert very quickly to sugar. Look at the G.I. (Glycemic index– a rate of how fast foods convert to sugar) of even whole wheat bread- it converts to pure sugar in less time than a snickers bar!

4. Table Salt is not Salt! Despite what the label in the grocery store says, Sodium and salt are not the same thing. What we commonly call ‘table salt’ has become a mix of chemically extracted pure sodium and aluminum anti-caking agents. True high quality sea salts naturally contain a blend of minerals that provide the sodium the body needs while maintaining proper mineral balance. Many new studies on hypertension are pointing towards not excess sodium as the culprit in hypertension (high blood pressure) but too little of other critical minerals: magnesium, calcium and potassium.

5. Remove the ‘added sugars’. Many foods contain HFCS (High fructose corn syrup) or other sweeteners. While small amounts may be just fine, we Americans rarely eat sugar in truly moderate amounts.

Consider: the human body on average keeps only about 8 grams (1tsp) of sugar at any time in your blood stream. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugar- and for a 2000 kcal diet, one can of coke already exceeds that.

A typical Coke has 41 grams (10 tsp sugar), and even a “healthy” Yoplait yogurt has a whopping 27 grams (6 3/4 tsp). If you’d like to see how much sugar this is, get out a teaspoon and measure it into a glass for a big surprise!

In normal physiological amounts fructose, sodium and omega 6 fats all have a vital role to play in our health. But the industrial level concentration of these (and other) nutrients is overwhelming to our systems and can greatly interfere with the dynamic homeostasis of our bodies and lead to looming health problems down the road.

Eat Better for Backpacking

Ever find it hard to get back on the trail again after a big meal? Or be hiking along and suddenly bonk? When backpacking, when you eat can be as important as what you eat. In order to keep your body in the best shape to move up the trail you need to eat the right thing at the right time.

Mix it up: Carbs are a popular fuel source while hiking, but it’s important to remember that eating only simple sugars without any backup will cause you to “bonk”.

While you’re busy trudging up the trail your body wants foods that don’t take too much work to process into energy. Simple sugars provide quick burning kindling for your body, but in order to have a steady stream of energy it’s a good idea to back them up with complex carbs and small amounts of slower burning protein and fat. Example: snacking on dried fruit, sweet potato chips, nut butters, coconut butter, nuts and beef jerky throughout the hike.

Give yourself time to digest. Start moving too soon after eating a large meal and you’ll sabotage your refueling. The process of digestion requires a lot of blood flow to your stomach and intestines. This requires a trade off: your body can shunt blood either to the major muscle groups or the stomach and intestines.

If you start hiking aggressively again too soon after a meal your body will not be able to send enough blood to help properly digest your food. Your meal will end up sitting in your stomach like a rock instead of fueling you to greater heights. Not fun.

If you’re planning on a big meal, include time to relax and digest in your hiking schedule. Nutrient dense meals a couple hours before you go to bed will give your body time to assimilate the materials to rebuild your cells and get you ready for another day.

Drink up! Drink water throughout the day. Spacing out your sipping allows you to hydrate more efficiently. Your body absorbs water better in smaller amounts rather than in big gulps. Adding an electrolyte mix to one of your drinking bottles can give you a nice change up to encourage to drink more often. Water bladders like a Camelback or Platypus have also been shown to encourage hydrating more often.

Food isn’t just fuel: Calories aren’t the only thing in food. Your body also the host of nutrients in it to rebuild, cleanse and repair. Most of the dehydrated meals out there are heavy on the white rice and pasta, but pretty thin on nutrient density. Protein and fat are not only used for fuel, they’re also absolutely critical structural components of all of our cells, make up our hormones and neurotransmitters, are part of the process in liver detoxification and a myriad of other processes.

When going dehydrated I like to bring along fat (olive oil, butter or coconut oil), protein (salmon, tuna, chicken, etc) and various dried and fresh veggies and fruits (sundried tomatoes, pine nuts, cranberries, garlic…) and healthful spices (curry, cinnamon, nutmeg, sea salt, pepper) to add in to my dinner.

Getting Unplugged

Connect with nature, Cure Nature Deficit disorder

“People are meant to connect with natural places. It is good for the human soul for people to explore their relationship with the places where they live.”

There was a time not too long ago that I felt more connected to my iphone than to the wilderness. At work I spent my time on the phone providing tech support, or hunched over my computer keyboard designing logos for hours on end until my neck and back were on fire with pain. My obsession with my TV shows, tech gizmos, and structured “play” activities made it harder for me to truly allow for free time. Something was always demanding my attention, distracting me, offering the promise of cheap, quick and effortless entertainment.

Connected

I grew up in a different world. I was three when we moved back to the family ranch. We had no TV. I spent my days outside. I played as much with sticks and stones as plastic toys. I knew only knew about town life from short resupply trips.

We were always outdoors. My older brother and I built dams in the stream near the house; making our own swimming holes- then destroying them a few days later just to watch the swirling power of the water take everything away. We climbed the oaks for lookout posts, built forts in the trees and bunkers in the brush. It made me feel proud that we had made these things together. We had built them ourselves. They were somehow ours in a way that things simply given to us were not.

I was always in touch with and learning about the world around me. My father took me out and showed me the local snakes, animal tracks and scat. He told me how to tell them apart by what they ate, how they moved and how their lives (and ours) followed the seasons. I learned to look before I placed my foot, watching the ground and surrounding brush carefully for threats. I learned to respect my environment in its power and beauty. I felt connected.

In Girl Scouts we would stagger up the trail under the weight of old fashioned tents on multi-day camping trips. We were often short a tent and I discovered I loved sleeping outside under the stars. The cold wind would bite my cheeks as I stared at the night sky. I remember my first view of the stars from the mountains up near Idyllwild. The Milky Way was a brilliant white splash. I would lay awake for what seemed like hours making up my own constellations.

I felt like I was part of something bigger. Like I had a purpose.

The Disconnect

As a child I had run free with a light heart and an inquisitive mind. My relationship with nature as a young adult became gradually more structured and constrained. Although I never completely stopped my outdoor activites, they took on a different tenor. With my new University and then job obligations I felt I had to make an effort to spend time in nature. Living in the city, it seemed all so far away and harder to get to – any outing had to be planned- and it seemed I never had the time.

I rarely approached my now brief journeys into the wilderness with the same completely open and accepting attitude I had as a child. I had learned the ways of modern distraction. I was often thinking of the other things I had to do. I filtered my experience through my camera, by listening to music, by looking for connectivity with my “smart” phone to check my email.

It took me a while to realize that most of the barriers that kept me from connecting with my wilderness were of my own making. I had made the choice to make these limitations and barriers part of my life- and I also could make the choice to let them go.

Home Again

In the last couple of years I’ve looked back on my childhood relationship with the wilderness and resolved to restore our free and easy bond. Finding ways to connect despite my busy life have been key. Working with the Forest Service as a Volunteer Wilderness Ranger, with Search and Rescue and the Sierra Club as a WTC intstuctor have been critical to reconnecting me with my love of nature, with my love of life itself.

I believe that a life without a connection to nature becomes more sterile, somehow blander. It robs you of basic skills of self-reliance, creativity, spirituality, of a feeling of connectedness with the cycles of life.

Away from the easy distractions of technology you not only can, but are forced to hear the ebb and their flow of your own thoughts and become comfortable with them. Without this inner ear you are likely to become disconnected from your own sense of self and goals in life. You are more likely to float on the surface of life and less likely to truly live.

 

Wild Rocket

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On a Wild Rocket Ride

Hanging out with other international travelers broadens your world a little bit each time. I’ve been missing my dear new friends, the very fashionable british blogville babes Frankie @frankiestyling, Akeela @actuallyakeela and Katie @katieantoniou. So I thought I a post on a theme that they inspired would be fitting.

We learned from our british blogville babes that the deliciously spicy greens that we were enjoying in Italy were not just plain Arugula (as we boring Americans label it) but should actually be referred to as “Rocket”. It didn’t take much to win me over for this name change. Personally, I think “Rocket” is a name much more in keeping with this crisp, spicy, slightly bitter green that helps any salad have that extra oomph of flavor.

We had rocket with our meals nearly every day in the beautiful city of Bologna– as a large salad by itself, underneath the primi piatti as a delicious heaping base and as a simple side garnish to a caprese salad with creamy fresh mozzarella and a dribble of heavenly sweet balsamic vinegar (My new balsamic addiction is from Acetaia San Giacomo– a small farmstead producer of deep brown vinegar with a rich flavorful sweetness).

It’s also an easy choice for a celiac while traveling- salads in Italy are pretty much always whole foods ingredients and the dressings are simple and rarely prepackaged. (Rather unexpectedly, Italy is actually an awesome place for celiacs to explore the cuisine, but more on that in another post!)

There’s something so satisfying about that spicy crunch, the deep green of the spiky leaves, accompanied by their fresh clean scent as you raise the fork to your mouth. I always feel both supremely healthy and decadent at once when eating my fresh rocket salad. (Here’s a link to some mouth watering rocket salad recipe ideas).

I’ve been back in the states a week or so and I’ve already been missing my daily dose of “rocket”, so I decided to order out from one of our fine local restaurants Cafe Aroma (@cafearoma1) and feed my addiction. Behold (below): fresh wild rocket salad topped by goat cheese, candied pecans, strawberries, peaches and a balsamic vinegar dressing. Delizioso!

Rocket (Arugula) Salad with goat cheese, peaches, candied pecans and basalmic vinegar at Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild
Rocket (Arugula) Salad with goat cheese, peaches, candied pecans and balsamic vinegar at Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild

Transported back to Italy for the night, I leaned back in the teak chair on my back porch savoring a grass of red wine and my wild rocket salad. Next mission? Head over to the market tomorrow to stock up on some more rocket- hopefully the clerk won’t look at me too strange when I ask for it!

Rocket: A Quick Nutritional Overview:

Want to make a healthy, tasty salad? Walk right past that nutritionally bereft iceberg lettuce (I call it “crunchy water”) in the produce aisle and straight head over to the Rocket. Arugula (Rocket) is a nutritional powerhouse of a green. It has many vital phytochemicals, anti-oxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can immensely benefit your health.

  • Rocket is abundant source of phytochemicals such as indoles, thiocyanates, sulforaphane and iso­thiocyanates. Together these phytochemicals have been found to counter carcinogenic effects of estrogen. This helps protect against prostate, breast, cervical, colon, ovarian cancers by inhibiting cancer cell growth, and cytotoxic (killing) effects on cancer cells. In addition, the di-indolyl-methane (DIM) in this great green helps your immune system regulate itself properly and has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties.
  • Rocket is also very good source of B complex vitamins such as folate, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), and pantothenic acid. These are essential for energy metabolism, and optimum cellular enzymatic functions. Folate in the diet is particularly critical as a common dietary supplement to help prevent neural tube defects in newborns. (Eat your greens, moms to be!)
  • Like spinach, rocket is an excellent source of vitamin A (in the form of Beta Carotene). Vitamin A and flavonoid compounds in in green leafy vegetables help protect from skin, lung and oral cavity cancers. So, before you think about slathering on potentially chemical laden sunscreen to protect from skin cancer, make sure you build up your body’s own defenses first.
  • Fresh rocket leaves also contain good levels of vitamin C, a powerful, natural anti-oxidant. Foods rich in vitamin C help your body fight against infectious agents (boosting your immunity) and remove harmful, inflammatory free radicals from the body.
  • Arugula is also a good source of minerals, especially copper and iron. It has a mix of small amounts of some other essential minerals and electrolytes such as calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, and phosphorus, all of which play critical enzymatic, chemical and structural roles in the body.

Whew! All in all, that’s pretty good for a small spiky green leaf!

Healthy Backcountry Kitchen

Cooking healthy food while backpacking

Keep it Fresh

When I started backpacking over two decades ago, I was convinced that packing fresh food was “verboten”. The colossal weight of several extra ounces of avocado on your back were just not worth the delight of savoring it’s creamy green goodness. The hiking gods would never allow such a sin to go unpunished. If you knew what was good for you, you’d stick with convenient and quick processed meals of dehydrated chicken and rice and count your bland, ultralight blessings.

While I still invest in lightweight gear, I’ve moved steadily away from gulping down the mummified remains of freeze-dried meals. I now know it’s possible to cook real, healthy food without wasting hours hunched over the stove or earning a hernia while carrying my dinner.

Here’s some helpful hints to turn your boring freeze-dried dinner into a (relatively) lightweight backcountry delight:

  1. Remember: Water is water. Your body doesn’t know the difference between the water in your Nalgene and in that succulent heirloom tomato. You’ll be carrying that water weight anyway- wouldn’t you rather some of it be in the form of delicious, juicy fruits and veggies? Benefits abound: Tomatoes alone provide a great amount of vitamin C and an outstanding antioxidant content- shown to fight fatigue and support your immune system- generally a great idea while hiking.
  2. Spices, spices, spices! Spices are worth their weight in gold. Salt and pepper are a must, but you can also bring anything from cumin to garlic powder. BONUS: include copious amounts of Curry for the anti-inflammatory powers of tumeric and you’ll be a lot less sore after your long days on trail. Skip the full containers and use Ziplock baggies for your kitchen on the go.
  3. Include healthy fats. Fat carries the most flavor- and serves as a great source of energy and materials to help your body to repair itself. Butter, coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil are all great choices. Ounce for ounce, fats provide the most fuel and flavor you need to keep going. TIP: The medium chain Triglycerides in coconut oil are particularly useful for quick energy since the body can absorb them directly from the digestive tract without having to go through all the extra work of emulsification.
  4. Freeze your first night’s protein. Stash a great steak in the freezer overnight before your trip. Just before you’re about to go, take it out, double ziplock bag it and pack it deep in the center of your pack. Your other gear will act as insulation keeping it cold and leaving you with a real treat at the end of the day. (NOTE: Unfortunately veggies and fruits generally do NOT freeze well- ice crystals break up their cell structure and they will turn into mush as they melt). Protein and fat are both necessary materials to help repair your muscles after long hours of hiking with a heavy pack. Make sure to give your body what it needs to rebuild.
  5. Precook some of your ingredients for the first night’s meal. Food such as onions, mushrooms and other side dish veggies can be precooked and then added to your pan at the last minute. You’ll cut down on cooking time, the size of pans and amount of fuel you’ll need to carry. By incorporating foods such as onions and garlic, you’ll not only drive away bears (and other backpackers) but also give your body the sulfur it needs to help produce the glycosaminoglycans necessary (amongst other functions) for the smooth, pain free movements of your joints and tendons.
  6. Choose dehydrated wisely. Instead of going for bland dehydrated meals, choose individual dry ingredients that will actually enhance the end flavor and health of your meal. Sundried tomatoes, herbs and dried mushroom medleys are all just waiting to be rehydrated and mixed in as ultra-flavorful components of your meals.
  7. Utilize dry staples, such as quick cook rice and (Gluten Free) pasta, then add fresh ingredients to spice up the meal. NOTE: A helpful trick to speed up the cooking process is to add your pasta or rice to a Ziplock bag full of water for the last mile or so (perhaps more depending on estimated cook time) of your hike into camp.

Fresh food may add some weight, but with the right choices it can more than make up for that in flavor and health. Everything tastes better in the backcountry, but that’s no excuse for eating just plain bad food.

The Nutritional Science “Chop Shop”

Nutrients in context

We humans have a creepy tendency chop things into little bits in order to understand them. We’re uncommonly proud of the knowledge we’ve gained from this scientific method of “chop it up and poke at the remains”, seemingly ignoring the fact that systems don’t necessarily function the same if you tear them into pieces. This has been particularly troubling in the field of nutritional science.

Nutrients Out of Context: Harmful in Isolation?

We increasingly are encountering issues due to the reductionist technique of separating the parts from the whole. The belief that we can somehow reduce a system to the sum of its parts- ignoring the complexity and interconnectedness of said system is troubling.

Much of the study of nutritional science is based on this separationist thinking. Studies will be done on particular foods within populations and (more often than they’d like to admit) those conducting the studies will attribute the positive or negative results not to the entire context of the food (the population’s activity level, when they eat, what else they eat in combination with the food, how it was processed and stored, etc), but to only one of it’s constituent parts- say, Vitamin A or a particular anti-oxidant that is currently all the rage. (For more information read Michael Pollan’s excellent book: In Defense of Food).

If truth be told, these reductionist techniques yield very mixed results- and even the things that we thought that we 100% we sure of are constantly being called into question. One year (or decade) we are assured unequivocally that fat is the enemy, then all of the sudden Carbs take the stage as the nutritional villain- And surprise! Fats, which we were supposed to avoid at all costs aren’t really that bad- they don’t contribute to cancer at all and their link to heart disease is tenuous at best. In fact, some of them are absolutely essential for important little things like silky hair, good skin and oh yeah, brain development and mental health. And remember those other supposedly ‘healthy’ scientifically man-made trans fats (in margarine and other processed ‘food-like’ substances) that they urged us to replace the traditional dietary fats with – those actually do cause cancer. Oops.

‘Scientific’ Food Fads: Fortification Nation

antioxidantsOf course, this all works out for the food processing companies, as they just follow along with the latest food science fad. Fats are bad? No worries- we’ll just take it out and add more carbs. Is vitamin E the Hero of the day? No problem- we’ll just fortify with it!!! Zinc? Folic Acid? Antioxidants? We’ve got it covered! But do we ever stop to think that maybe we don’t have it all covered? That by reducing our foods down to their constituent nutrients and injecting them into processed products willy-nilly that we might be missing out on something essential? That perhaps the constituent parts created by Mother Nature are not as interchangeable as gears in a machine?

The problem that rears it’s ugly head is that many of the essential nutrients that we have identified (and there are many more that we have no idea of yet) do not function all by their lonesome in a vacuum. Instead they are part and parcel of a system of interacting, interlocking parts.

Health in Context

We humans evolved as part of that system as well- a context of foods, activities, of life and death and evolution – an entire complex ecosystem designed by Evolution. By breaking our foods apart, purifying individual nutients and injecting them into a neat scientific pill form or fortifying our breakfast cereals, we are loosing the synergy of that system- the very substances that are a boon when taken in context of a whole food can become a poison to our systems when taken separately. An example? Beta carotene- believed to be a helpful cancer preventative when ingested in the form of a whole food such as a carrot, has been shown to actually promote certain kinds of cancer when taken as a supplement in pill form. Divorced from its context the nutrient becomes something other than what it was as part of its system.

Reduced to a simple recipe of parts, we are again and again surprised when these parts do not add up to make a whole. Something is always missing, but we don’t yet have the knowledge to know what it is. Reductionist thinking is a useful tool with which to examine our world- but falling into the trap of thinking that it will provide us with all the answers is pure folly. The complex systems that have evolved in nature over time, cannot (at least right now) be broken down into separate parts and dissected without loosing the synergy that results from their interaction.

I’M READING: Spark

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

“A groundbreaking and fascinating investigation into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain, from the bestselling author and renowned psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD.

Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: Aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance.” Review from Amazon.com

It’s a great read- solid research and info peppered with relevant case studies and stories. Highly recommended! Check it out either on Amazon or iTunes (for the audiobook version!)