Wise Words from Michael Pollan

I came across this video tonight and had to share it on the blog. Michael Pollan is one of the leading experts on the food industry, and I recommend his work to anyone interested.

In this video, Pollan explains how our government and our agricultural system have made it possible for a Twinkie, a complex, highly processed, 40 ingredient product to cost less than a carrot, a simple root vegetable that can be planted and harvested with minimal effort.

 

It’s interesting and unfortunate that everyone recognizes America’s obesity epidemic, but that no one has taken effective steps to stop the government’s subsidizing of fattening, caloric, sugary ingredients.

One scene from the documentary, Food Inc., addresses how this issue affects an average, blue-collar American family.

 

The most poignant moment for me is when the family is walking through the grocery store and the younger daughter jumps up and down with excitement when she sees pears in the produce section. You can see her disappointment when the older sister tells her that the pears are too expensive to buy. The mother goes on to explain that she usually buys chips, candy, hamburgers and soda for the family because they are the cheapest ways to keep everyone full.

The point of this post was not to start a political rant. I do, however, think it’s so important for people to know about our food system and the policies behind it. We can bring about change by voting in elections, voting with our dollars, and raising awareness. Some great places to start are sharing what you know with others, supporting small farmers, avoiding cheap processed foods, and visiting restaurants that use local ingredients.

For my Charlotte restaurant recommendations, click here.

To learn more about the Farm Bill, click here and here.

Posted in Awareness, Grocery Stores, Local, Nutrition, Policy, Politics, Public Health, Restaurants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Healthy Living Advice to 16-year-old Me

As my interest in healthy living has become apparent to my friends and family in the last few years, I’ve started to receive questions about the topic. I’ve been asked what I eat for meals, what I buy at the grocery store, what I think of certain foods, what I do for exercise, etc. And while I’m not an expert on any of those topics, I love discussing them and hearing others’ opinions.

One friend recently asked me a question that I hadn’t gotten before: if she only did one thing to start “being healthier,” what did I think she should do?

To this Chick-Fil-A loving friend, my answer was pretty quick. I said if I were here, I’d stop eating fast food and stop drinking sodas.

(You don’t want to be eating Chick-Fil-A)

I’ve thought about that question since then, however, and if she were to ask me again, I’d definitely change my answer.

This friend is tan all year long, and I’m pretty sure it’s from the tanning bed. I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention giving up the tan (probably because I, myself, still forget that diet and exercise aren’t the only elements of healthy living), but that would be my honest advice to almost anyone.

While a poor diet and lack of exercise can cause a host of health issues, it is still very possible for people at any stage of life to lose weight, lower their blood pressure, improve their cholesterol,  and undo much of their previous dietary damage. Skin damage, however, does not work that way. You can’t shed sun spots or moles the way you can shed weight, and your skin will forever reflect its tans and sunburns of the past.

And while I love to spout off facts about foods and ingredients that are linked to various types of cancer, I always fail to mention that skin cancer is the most common form of all cancers. It accounts for almost half of all cancers in the United States, yet it’s something that is often overlooked by me and the healthy living blog community.

American Cancer Society

When I look back on my childhood, I have no regrets about Pizza Hut pizza my brother and I loved to order, the Doritos and cream cheese snacks I ate in the middle school cafeteria, the chocolate cake I ate for breakfast most mornings in ninth grade, or the hung-over days in college when I decided to forgo exercise for TV watching with roommates.

What I do regret, however, are all the tennis matches I played with no hat, all the tan lines I got at summer camp, and all miles of road I ran with no thought of sunscreen.

Skin damage can be more dangerous than weight gain because it can sneak up on you. Gaining weight or getting out of shape are experiences not easily overlooked – you feel them and you can tell they are happening. Developing skin cancer, however, is gradual. It can go under the radar, and it’s often not apparent until it’s already a problem.

So, if I could go back and have that conversation with that friend again, I’d advise against the tan more than the chicken biscuits or the Cokes.

Heck, if I could go back in time and have that conversation with myself, I’d say the same thing.

This video puts it well:

Dear 16-year-old me,

17-year-old18-year-old

Wear sunscreen!

Sincerely,

A much lighter, hopefully wiser, 24-year-old me.

24

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Back to the Blog – Political Food for Thought

During a busy period of moving, traveling and changes at work, I thought I was going to retire from my (short-lived) blogging hobby. When I was working on the blog this summer, I often felt like I didn’t have anything new to say, and that my voice was likely to getting lost in a sea of others’.

I just read another blogger’s post, however, that relit my fire and has brought me back. Reading this post made me realize that there are not enough voices out there right now advocating for sustainability and health, and that one person really can make an impact.

The Food Babe is another Charlotte blogger, and she is fighting hard for awareness and reform in our country’s food system. She was a delegate at the recent Democratic National Convention, championing the issue of labeling genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. I was excited to follow along with her throughout that week, knowing she was going to get to speak about this issue with many politicians and members of the media I admire.

Read her post here for more information on GMOs and for many Democrats’ responses.

Read this article for reasons why we don’t need genetically modified foods, and this article from the New York Times for additional background on the issue. Note that in the Times article, the author points out that according to a 2010 Thomson Reuters-NPR poll, nine out of 10 Americans said they did want genetically modified foods to be labeled.

Source: NYT

So having had this background on GMOs before the Democratic National Convention, I was disappointed in some of the reactions the Food Babe received when she brought up the issue to various politicians and members of the media.

I am disappointed in Bill Clinton for not being willing to discuss GMOs. He is a very public vegan and likely knows the importance of this issue. He knows what foods are good for us and what foods are bad for us, and I’m sure he believes that Americans need as much knowledge about what they are consuming as possible in order to maintain healthy lifestyles.

I am disappointed in Kay Hagan for not supporting labeling due to “the science of the issue.” I disagree with her argument because:

A. The science is there that GMOs are potentially harmful.

B. This fight is not even about science. It is about consumers having the right to know what chemicals they are choosing or are not choosing to put into their bodies. If I want to go to the grocery store and buy an apple, I believe it is my right to know how and where that apple was grown, and what kinds of chemicals were sprayed on it before I choose to bring it home.

I am disappointed in Chris Matthews. I really like him and his show, and I don’t like that he rolled his eyes at a question about this issue. Maybe he has never addressed GMO labeling on his show, but I know he has addressed healthcare issues, issues related to corporate transparency, and issues of corporate influence in politics – those are directly related to GMO labeling. And while I understand that there are many other important and visible issues to address in politics right now, he shouldn’t have rolled his eyes at a member of his own party who was out fighting for an issue she believes is important.

Finally, while the Food Babe didn’t speak with Barack Obama, I am still disappointed in his handling of the GMO issue. In 2007, he promised to bring about reform to label GMOs. Not only has he not addressed this issue since his election, he appointed Michael Taylor, a former vice president at Monsanto (the company that developed and has patents on many GMO seeds) as Deputy Commissioner of Foods.

From Monsanto to the FDA

With the money Obama’s administration (and prior administrations) have accepted from Monsanto and other “big food” companies, and with the influence Obama is allowing through this appointment, GMOs will never be labeled.

It is up to us – consumers, foodies, health advocates, environmentalists, youth – to keep bringing up the issue. Even though nine out of 10 of us want genetically modified foods to be labeled, it is still an uphill battle.

Talking about it, fighting for it, and possibly moving into the political realm ourselves one day is what it will take to bring about change.

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What’s in Your Peanut Butter?

One food that I eat almost every day is peanut butter. I put it in my oatmeal or smoothies for breakfast, eat it on toast or an apple for snacks, and usually have a few (or a lot of) bites after dinner. I have very little portion control when it comes to peanut butter, and I can go through a jar in a surprisingly few number of days. I really don’t keep many decadent foods in my kitchen, so peanut butter is usually my go-to treat. It can satisfy sweet and salty cravings while still offering healthy fats and protein.

  PB in Smoothie

I’m not super diligent about my portion sizing or watching the amount of peanut butter I eat. Since I do consume so much, however, I am picky about what types I buy and what ingredients I am willing to consume.

One of the most common ingredients found in conventional, big brand peanut butters that I avoid is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Partial hydrogenation is a process that turns oil from its natural, liquid state into a more solid product. It changes the mouth feel of the oil and gives it (or any product containing it) a longer shelf life. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats, meaning they can increase LDL (bad cholesterol), make arteries more rigid and become clogged, and can lead to coronary heart disease and diabetes. Their purpose in commercial peanut butters, besides extending shelf life, is simply to make them easier to spread and more “visually appealing”. 

PB PP

If you pick up a jar of natural peanut butter without hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list, you’ll notice some oil floating at the top. (According to the big brands, this is not “visually appealing.”) That is peanut oil that is naturally released when the peanuts are ground. Peanut oil, when consumed in moderation, can be good for you – much better than hydrogenated oil! It is low in saturated fat, is cholesterol free, and is rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids. It can reduce levels of LDL (bad cholesterol), increase levels of HDL (good cholesterol), and help the body absorb vitamins.

Natural PB 

Apparently consumers think the naturally-occurring oil that floats at the top of natural peanut butter is messy and inconvenient. Hydrogenated oils were introduced into commercial peanut butters partly because people didn’t want to have to stir the product.

Natural AB

To me, not wanting to stir your food is not a good enough reason to willingly consume artery clogging trans fats. Peanut butter is so calorie rich, in fact, that most of our arms could use a little stirring workout before consumption.

PB Skippy

If you notice on the Skippy label, the company actually spells out the reason for the hydrogenated vegetable oils: “to prevent separation.” When ground, however, peanuts naturally release and separate from some of their oil. Preventing that separation and introducing hydrogenated oil into the product is both unnecessary and unhealthy.

PB HT

PB Smart Balance

Some producers of conventional peanut butters have switched from using partially hydrogenated oils to palm oil (see Smart Balance above and Natural JIF below). While palm oil has not gone through the hydrogenation process, it is still not a healthier solution.

JIF Naturalnaturaljif

The Huffington Post explains it well:

“…brands have been adding palm oil to their recipe… Using this ingredient may be considered cheating a bit in the realm of natural peanut butter, and it’s also a bit problematic in terms of your health and the environment’s health. Not only is palm oil extremely high in saturated fat, but it’s also controversial for the harm it causes to the environment — rainforests and peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia have been cleared out to increase production of the palm trees that produce palm oil. Weighing the tradeoff between eating creamier “natural” peanut butter and eating something that’s potentially harmful is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself.”

Well, I made my decision to switch to real natural peanut butter (and almond butter) about a year ago, and I’ve never looked back!

Bulk Nut Butter

The bulk bin grinders are my favorite sources – you can literally see the plain nuts being ground in front of your eyes and feeding directly into your jar. Most health food stores have these – in Charlotte I go to Healthy Home Market or Earth Fare, but most Whole Foods have them, too.

Bulk AB

Bulk PB

Bulk PB3

With these grinders, the only ingredient you pay for and consume are the nuts. This product is fresh, healthy, unprocessed, and tastes so much better than any jar of JIF! While the fat and calorie counts are still high in this all-natural peanut butter, you can feel better knowing that fats are healthy, the oils are natural, you aren’t ingesting chemical compounds or unnecessary sugars. Also, since this kind of peanut butter is so fresh, the oils rarely have time to separate before I finish my jar, and it spreads just as well as conventional peanut butter.

PB on Muffins

If you don’t have access to bulk grinders, there are many jarred nut butters out there that are also delicious, unprocessed, and only contain nuts. My favorite brands are Woodstock and Crazy Richard’s, and both are sold at my local Harris Teeter.

Organic PB

Crazy Richard's

With the natural and health foods markets booming the way they are today, there are tons of options to clean up your diet and reduce your impact on the environment. There are no reasons why you need to keep consuming trans fats, hydrogenated oils, and other processed additives. Switching from conventional to all-natural peanut butter is a great step towards a cleaner diet, and it won’t leave you lacking flavor or texture – promise!

Have you made the switch? How do you think conventional peanut butters compare to the natural kinds?

 

References:

http://www.nutrition-and-you.com/peanut-oil.html

http://www.livestrong.com/article/361692-peanut-oil-nutrition-information/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/24/natural-peanut-butter_n_1299454.html

http://www.bantransfats.com/abouttransfat.html

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What’s in Season?

Some of the most common advice I hear, and it turn give, about eating a healthy diet and minimizing that diet’s impact on the environment is to eat locally and seasonally. I’ve talked about some of those benefits before on the blog, but a quick recap is:

  • Eating food grown close to home means it did not have to be shipped far and wide to get to your kitchen. This minimizes the oil consumption related to your diet.
  • When your food was grown locally and didn’t have to be shipped, you have access to it shortly after harvest. This ensures maximum freshness and taste, and eliminates the need for preservatives.
  • Produce is in its most nutritious state when harvested at peak ripeness. If you can eat local produce, you can buy produce that was picked at peak ripeness. If you eat produce from across the country or across the world, it was probably harvested before peak ripeness in order to sustain the shipping process. This can cause you to miss out on important nutrients.
  • Eating foods within your local seasons ensures you are supporting local farmers and keeps more money in the community. When you buy foods directly from the farmer, as opposed to from a grocery store, the middle man is eliminated, and the farmer is more profitable. 

produce

And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth repeating that seasons differ around the country and around the world. For example, Florida strawberries peak in March and April. North Carolina strawberries peak in May. In New Zealand and Chile, strawberries peak between November and April. 

strawberry jam

Some foods aren’t native to your region, and you can always assume they weren’t grown locally. In North Carolina, for example, I know any pineapple, mango, or kiwi I find was not grown close by, so I view those items as treats and don’t make them weekly grocery staples. 

Weekend Tomato

And just because it’s warm outside, that doesn’t mean that every type of fruit associated with summer is actually in season. Those blueberries at the grocery store could have come from Maine, the cherries from Washington state, the watermelon from Florida, and the strawberries from South America. Your best bet for staying within seasons, again, is to buy produce from farmers markets instead of grocery stores.

cherries

So, for many reasons, it’s good to know what’s in season where you live. That knowledge allows you to support your local farmers and make more nutritious choices. It keeps your diet varied all year long, and it reduces your impact on the environment. 

For North Carolinians, I’ve taken this chart from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services Web site. While this graphic doesn’t capture every type of produce available, it is a great starting guide. The site also has tons of other useful information.

Eat Seasonally Chart

(Source)

If you’re not from North Carolina, Eat Well Guide’s interactive seasonal food guide can point you in the right direction. Take a look and let me know if you learn anything new!

What are some of your area’s best locally-grown foods?

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My Strategy for Preparing Healthy Lunches To Go

When I started my full-time job last year, I wanted to be sure I didn’t develop the habit of eating out often for lunch. Eating out is typically more expensive than bringing your own lunch from home, it is typically less healthy, and it is typically worse for the environment. Restaurants put much larger amounts of salt, sugar, butter, oil, etc. into their meals than you would put into meals you’d prepare for yourself, and their portion sizes are often much bigger than you would serve yourself. Restaurants also use more packaging and create more trash than you would alone (think the to-go bag, the cardboard or styrofoam food container, the drink cup and straw, the handful of napkins, the little ketchup packets – the list can go on). Also, if you have any special dietary preferences, eating out can become a challenge. I try to avoid meat, dairy products and overly processed foods, and it’s hard to find restaurants and dishes near my office that have what I want.

So, I started packing my lunch from day one and have developed a little system that works really well. The process varies week to week depending on my schedule, but I’ll outline below what I did last weekend.

Saturday morning I went to the farmers market and picked up a bunch of produce. As seen below, I got eggplant, cherries, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I also got some purple beans, blueberries, and blackberries.

July Farmers Market

Later that day I ran by the Healthy Home Market to get the rest of my groceries, including oats, chia seeds, nuts, beans, tempeh, frozen peas, bananas, apples, Larabars, nut butters, avocados, cauliflower, hummus, leafy greens, and tea.

The whole shopping process on Saturday took about an hour. I didn’t tally how much I spent, but I would estimate that it was all less than $80. Since I buy a lot of seasonal produce from the farmers market, don’t buy meat or alcohol at the grocery store, and keep a lot of bulk bin staples on hand, I can usually keep my food bill low.

The next step happened on Sunday morning. I woke up and did about an hour of food prep while I ate my breakfast. As shown below, this involved washing and cutting some of the vegetables, cooking a big batch of quinoa, steaming some cauliflower, sautéing a pepper, boiling some of the purple beans, rinsing a can of black beans, roasting some sweet potato wedges, and washing a lot of my fruit.

Kitchen Prep

Kitchen Prep 2Purple Beans

Here are some of the prepped lunch ingredients.

Cooked Ingredients

Ingredient Plate

Once the prep was complete, I left everything out to cool and went about my day. Later Sunday evening, I came home and combined some of the ingredients into a quinoa salad. This was as simple as mixing a few cups of quinoa with the cauliflower, purple beans, and peppers. I kept the tomatoes and avocados aside to add later.

Quinoa Summer Salad

I washed some baby kale and baby spinach, and made a leafy green bed in the four Tupperware containers below. (I only made four this week because I knew I was going to be working from home on Monday and wouldn’t need a fifth packed lunch.)

Baby KaleBaby Spinash

Four Tupperwares

And this was my stopping point on Sunday. I had four basic salads prepared for lunches and a lot of washed and cooked vegetables for snacks or dinners later in the week.

*Note: I don’t make this same quinoa salad every week. I switch all of the ingredients up based on what I’m in the mood for or what looked good at the farmers market or grocery. You can always change any of the elements or leave them out completely! Sometimes I don’t do a bed of greens, sometimes I do brown rice instead of quinoa, sometimes I just roast a ton of vegetables and put those over beans or spinach, sometimes I prep my ingredients and wrap them in a tortilla instead of making a salad, etc. You can get creative!

The rest of the prep work I save until the night before or morning of the work day I need my lunch. At that point, I’ll pull a salad out of the fridge and decide what additional protein, if any, I want to add. (I say additional here because this salad already had quinoa and black beans.) Some of my typical options are veggie burgers, tempeh, another type of beans or, on occasion, hard boiled eggs. I don’t eat eggs often, as I try to avoid dairy, but sometimes I do buy a dozen of organic, local eggs from the farmers market. There are several local farms from which I feel comfortable buying eggs, and I will bring them home every now and then.

Protein Options

This is also the point when I will add any of the fresher ingredients like avocado or tomato slices.

I’ll throw my protein and fresh elements on top of the salad, and then I’ll decide on a sauce/dressing. I like to make my own, and I usually go with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. Other times I’ll do a homemade honey mustard or will just go with olive oil or marinara sauce. If I do ever use a bottled dressing, I like Annie’s. Annie’s has several vegan and organic options with no scary ingredients – my current favorite is Lite Goddess.

Lite Goddess

Once the salad is done, I’ll pack a few snacks. I usually do one fruit snack (berries, sliced apple, grapefruit, cherries, banana with peanut butter) and one vegetable snack (sweet potato wedges, carrot sticks, raw green beans, sliced bell peppers, snap peas and hummus). I try to wash and prep anything I will need for a fruit or vegetable snack on Sunday, as well.

Berries washed

Berries Tupperware

Apple

Sweet Potato Fries

If I still think I’ll need more, I’ll pack some nuts or a Larabar.

larabars

And that is it! After a couple of weeks practicing this little routine, I have come to really enjoy it. As I’ve said many times before, I love supporting local farmers, I love getting to vote with my dollars when shopping for food, and I love preparing my own meals and controlling exactly what goes into them.

This process can be adjusted to any budget, any dietary need, and almost any schedule. With a little planning and a little extra time in the kitchen getting down and dirty with your food, you can so easily make healthy lunches and snacks for a full work or school week. 

Now you tell me: what do you usually eat at work? If you pack your lunch, what are some of your go-to meals?

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Scenes from a Summer Vacation

I’ve been home from my summer vacation for a few days now, but I’m already ready to go back! I loved five straight days of sleeping in, being outside, and having no set schedule.

My boyfriend and I started off spending two nights in Asheville for a birthday party and a wedding. We got to see lots of friends and family, which is a treat these days considering how spread out everyone has gotten since college.

Mountains

Post partying, we hit the road for Charleston, SC. Charleston is one of my favorite places on the East coast, and I always feel like vacation really starts when I drive under the Cooper Bridge. 

Bridge

We actually stayed on Folly Beach at Water’s Edge Inn. We came across it on TripAdvisor, and exceeded all of the great reviews! It is a pretty inconspicuous place, but the rooms were super clean and nice, the staff was so friendly, our view overlooked the water, and we were in walking distance of town and the beach. The inn also has a complimentary cocktail hour every night that was a fun surprise upon arriving!

Water's Edge Inn

We had lunch twice during our vacation at The Lost Dog. I really liked this restaurant because of all its healthy options. This lunch was a black bean cake and tuna over mango salsa. Super tasty.

Lost Dog Fish

On the beach, William did some kite boarding, and I did some kite launching, some watching, and some swimming. 

Kite Boarding

I also flew the trainer kite one afternoon. That little thing is powerful!

Trainer Kite

My favorite meal of the vacation was at Husk in downtown Charleston. Husk is one of the nation’s best restaurants, and all of the ingredients are local! We had dinner here last summer, and I was excited for months leading up to this trip about going back.

Husk Sign

In the entryway is a chalkboard that documents the origin of every ingredient. I love this touch; you can really see that everything from the butter to the eggs to the chocolate comes from the South. The menu changes daily based on what ingredients are available locally and are in season.

Husk Local

And when you taste the food, you can definitely tell how fresh it all is. We started with bread and the fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese appetizer.

Husk BreadHusk Fried Green Tomato

I had the softshell crab entrée. It was actually the first time I’ve eaten a softshell crab, and I loved it.

Husk Crab

William got some kind of berry/shortcake dessert that he said was delicious. I got a chocolate trifle that was also awesome, but the lighting was too dim at this point to capture it.

Husk Berry Dessert

Charleston has so much great food, but Husk my top recommendation if you are ever in the area! (Be sure to book ahead – I made this reservation back in February or March!)

Outside Husk

The next day we did some shopping.

I went to King Street for clothes.

King Street Shopping

And William went to a surf shop.

Surf Boards

We had lunch at Taco Boy on Folly Beach. I had a black bean taco and a mushroom taco, both in lettuce wraps. I also had a skinny pineapple margarita.

If I knew of a place in Charlotte that served those, I would go often. 

Taco Boy

We left Folly on the 4th of July, and we were clearly headed in the wrong direction! Everyone was going to the beach.

4th Traffic

We had lunch in town before driving back to Charlotte. We went to Hominy Grill, and I had the pinto bean cakes.

Hominy Pinto Bean Cakes

They were good, but dessert was better. William talked me into one last vacation treat: chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. It was as delicious as it looks.

Hominy Choc and PB Cake

We got back to Charlotte the evening of the 4th and went for a run (some sweating was necessary after all of those desserts and cocktails). The streets were empty! Next year we are totally staying at the beach for the night of the 4th and the fireworks.

Empty 4th July CLT

The trip went by so quickly. I had been looking forward to it since we decided to go last fall, and I’m sad it’s over! I’m so glad, though, that we were able to take a few days to visit friends and family, relax, be at the beach, and eat lots of treats. Vacations are the best, and I’m already brainstorming my next trip.

Where is your favorite place to take a vacation? Where should I go next?!

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