How To Make Your Own Muesli – It’s Stupid Easy

by | Sep 26, 2012

I’ve explained before that muesli is my favorite alternative to traditional breakfast cereal. It’s minimally processed, has no added sugar and when made properly is quite tasty. The only problem is that these are features that food companies hate, because most people won’t buy it. This makes it difficult to find muesli, particularly a high-quality version at a reasonable price.

Luckily it’s stupid easy to make your own muesli. Doing it yourself is also a lot cheaper and lets you customize your mix to your preferences. All you need is some rolled grains (oats or a mixed cereal like I use here) and an assortment of nuts and dried fruits of your choosing—you don’t need a real recipe.

In the mix above I chose a 5 grain cereal that I found at my local market. I picked up a simple nut mix of roasted and lightly salted nuts, some extra hazelnuts (because I love them), some golden raisins and some dried currants. It turned out AWESOME, way better than the expensive stuff I normally buy.

I used to always eat my muesli mixed with a little plain yogurt, but these days I’ve preferred to just pour a little in a bowl, add some water and microwave it for 2 minutes. It comes out like the tastiest oatmeal you’ve ever had. I sprinkle a little cinnamon on top, and maybe add a splash of almond milk and it is amazing. If you’re still acclimating to the lack of sugar in muesli, you can try stirring in a spoonful of peanut butter, low sugar jam or a drizzle of honey.

Lastly, I love these POP containers by OXO. They come in a bunch of different sizes and shapes, and do a great job of keeping foods fresh. I use them to store all my beans, lentils, grains, dried chilies and other pantry items.

Thanks to Kevin Rose and Glenn McElhose for help with filming and editing.

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The Myth Of Superfoods

by | Sep 24, 2012
Blueberries

Blueberries

The term “superfood” gets thrown around a lot, usually by the media or somebody selling something. But more often than not it sends the wrong message about healthy eating, and only serves to fuel the fire of nutritionism.

Superfood refers to an edible plant (e.g. blueberries) or animal (e.g. salmon) that contains high levels of a particular nutrient (antioxidants! omega-3s!) that can supposedly help with a certain health issue. When something gets labeled as a superfood, most of us will automatically assume that it is extra super duper healthy and we should go out of our way to eat more of it. Not that we will, but maybe we’ll try to try and eat more.

To their credit, the superfoods I’ve seen are usually legit healthy foods. They tend to be berries, greens, fish and other natural ingredients. In other words, I haven’t seen any reports that Vitaminwater is a superfood and actually really good for you.

But is there really some list of magical foods that will save you from certain death? Probably not.

Obviously nutrients are important, but large doses of them from either food or supplements are almost never associated with added benefits. That is because the way our body deals with micronutrients is not linear (more does not mean better). Instead there is typically an ideal dose range for a given nutrient where too little is bad and too much is also bad, but any reasonable quantity is pretty darn good. Think of Goldilocks finding the perfect porridge temperature and bed softness. In normal ranges your nutrient levels will be just right, freeing you to continue snooping around strangers’ homes (or whatever).

Though it is hard to overdose on whole foods, it is possible. But more important, eating a lot of one kind of food almost certainly won’t give you any health advantage. If you’re eating something that means you aren’t eating something else, and in Western cultures what we’re really lacking is nutrient diversity.

The vast majority of our diets are made up of the same handful of foods that we eat over and over again. Even people who make legitimate efforts to eat healthy have rather limited diets if their fruit and vegetable purchases come from standard supermarkets. Throwing blueberries in there every now and then can only add so much.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of important nutrients (vitamins, antioxidants, etc.) in our diets, and the reality is we probably don’t know what all of them are, let alone what functions they serve in our bodies. The problem gets even more complex when you factor in the context of our genes, environment and other foods we consume.

Each natural food contributes its own unique blend of nutrients. If you want to get the most from your diet, you’re much better off focusing on dietary diversity rather than loading up on the top 10 foods some magazine says you should eat more of.

All that being said, it does make me happy when lowly, forgotten vegetables like beets and lima beans get featured in the New York Times. Vegetables need all the press they can get, and it’s true that most people don’t eat enough vegetables period. Any article that encourages you to try a new kind of food is a good thing.

Keep in mind that if you see a food labeled “super” you should take it with a grain of salt, because the reality is that all natural foods are superfoods. The ones that make the news just happen to be those that some reporter decided to shine her spotlight on for the time being. Who knows what vegetable will land in the spotlight tomorrow?

What are your favorite unsung superfoods?

Originally published August 11, 2010.

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5 Things To Consider Before Eating Something Naughty

by | Sep 17, 2012

Photo by Aldo Fonticiella

Sometimes foods are super unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them.

In my opinion, the purpose of food should be to optimize quality of life. Food is delicious, it makes you healthy and brings you closer to friends and loved ones. At any given meal, I try my best to maximize each of these goals. And if it falls short in one, I try to make it up in another.

Inevitably there are situations where the best option is not particularly obvious. For example, how important is it to eat healthy when you’re on vacation?

Consider dessert. By no stretch of the imagination do you need dessert to live, and if we are being honest with ourselves most of the time we probably shouldn’t eat it. But sometimes (err, often) we want to anyway.

Ideally you should get your healthstyle to a place where you can occasionally go a little wild without it having a significant impact on your health goals. But getting there takes practice and a healthy dose of self awareness.

Here are 5 questions to help you make the right decision before letting loose.

5 Things To Consider Before Eating Something Naughty

1. What else have you eaten today? This week?

To be able to indulge occasionally, you need to understand what “occasionally” really means. Depending on your body size and activity levels, you can get away with maybe one or two treats a week. If you find yourself giving in once or more a day, it may be time to reevaluate your definition of special occasion.

2. Have you been to the gym?

Using the gym to justify a bad diet is a losing battle. But if you do eat a few too many quickly digesting calories, it’s much better that they go to fuel your muscles rather than your waistline. I’ve found that some of my best runs at the gym are on birthday cake days at the office.

3. Will you be drinking later?

Alcohol fuels weight gain in a number of ways. Sugary drinks add hundreds of calories to your day and should be considered an indulgence in their own right. Alcohol also has a way of convincing you to opt for late night burrito runs or greasy morning brunches. If you’re heading out with friends later, you might want to skip the after dinner cheesecake.

4. Are you trying to lose weight?

Believe it or not, asking yourself your health goals before you eat something can really help you make better decisions. I don’t recommend strict diets when you’re finding your healthstyle, but if you still have weight to lose desserts and heavy meals won’t make your life any easier. If you’d still like to drop some pounds, it pays to be picky with your indulgences.

5. Is it worth it? Really?

One of the best things about avoiding diets is you have the freedom to fit your favorite foods into your life. But one of the down sides is that you need to be able to make good choices for yourself, which isn’t always easy. It can be very tempting to consider every cupcake that is brought to the office a special occasion and lose track of the truly valuable indulgences that actually make your life better. Birthdays, anniversaries and great restaurants are things you will remember for your entire life. Junk food at the office is rarely more than an excuse to avoid work for another half hour. Be honest with yourself about the true value of a food before inviting it into your life.

What helps you make quality food choices?

Originally published September 20, 2010.

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How To Burn More Calories Without Breaking A Sweat

by | Sep 12, 2012

Photo by Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo Rodrigo

It’s amazing to me how easy it is to forget to move.

This year was the first time in about 5 years that I found myself gaining weight. It wasn’t a lot, just 5 lbs over 6 months or so, but it was strange for me since I didn’t think I was doing anything different.

I write and think about healthy living all the time, and I absolutely love the food I eat. I no longer crave sugar, and avoiding it isn’t hard. If anything I have eaten healthier than ever during this time, since I started working at home and control 100% of my meals. I’ve been eating the same or better quality food than I always have, and have even improved on my mindful eating techniques.

So what gives?

I didn’t think the problem was exercise, since I still go to the gym 4-6 days a week. My workouts have actually gotten better, and I’ve noticed welcome improvements in several aspects of my physique (thank you kettlebell!). I wasn’t upset about how I looked, I had just gotten slightly larger and didn’t know why.

Then about 6 weeks ago I figured it out: I had stopped walking.

When I was still in my PhD program I had a substantial walk to work, at least a mile each way if I took the campus shuttle, and about 2.5 miles each way if I walked the whole distance (I did this rarely, but tried to squeeze it in when I could). I also worked in the lab, running back and forth between rooms and up and down stairs to get equipment. Though I came home each evening and worked on Summer Tomato until the wee hours of the morning, I was not sedentary.

Even during my brief stint in the corporate world after graduation I had a walking commute to work. But after I quit in January I just stayed at home writing. At first I had a standing desk/table I was using, but logistics and a problematic elbow forced me to move to the coffee shop across the street where most of my work gets done now. This sedentary shift correlates exactly with when I noticed my pants getting tighter.

What’s crazy to me is that this amount of exercise seems so inconsequential it doesn’t even register in my brain until months after the change has occurred (did I mention I was still working out almost every day?). And it’s not like I never think about this stuff, I noticed when I first started walking that I effortlessly dropped weight. How could I forget that non-exercise activity (NEAT) is so important?

It’s easy to forget, but this is good news. It means that it is not a chore to burn more calories—in fact, you will hardly notice. All you need to do is make an effort to be a little more active throughout the day, and work to build more activity into your daily routine.

To solve my problem, I turned to my puppy Toaster. He needs to get out and walk a few times a day, so I thought why not improve both of our lives by making a daily pilgrimage to the bigger, better park that’s about a mile from the house instead of the smaller, dirtier park that is closer and more convenient? He gets more exercise and behaves better, I get my walk in, and we both have more fun. Win-win.

I’m happy to report that my pants are fitting better again and I’m back down to my normal weight.

If you don’t have a dog, there are plenty of other ways to move more. Avoid elevators and escalators, walk to lunch or between floors in your building, do chores more enthusiastically at home and park further away in the parking lot. Just standing up more can make a difference. These things add minuscule amounts of time to your tasks but add up significantly for your health.

Unlike structured, high-intensity exercise, walking and other low-intensity movements don’t make you hungrier. There’s good evidence that increasing your daily activity can burn hundreds of extra calories each day and may be one of the most effective ways to impact your energy balance (i.e. burn more without eating more). This is not true of more formal exercise, which tends to make people hungrier. Importantly, non-exercise activity correlates with body weight in obese as well as normal weight individuals, so everyone can benefit from extra movement.

Even if you already work out regularly you should still strive for additional daily activity. Amazingly, high-intensity exercise doesn’t lower your inclination toward NEAT, but raises it. In one study, scientists measured NEAT 3 days before and 3 days after overweight individuals performed either moderate or high-intensity exercise. There was no measurable change in NEAT until the third day after exercise, when it increased 17% after moderate activity and 25% after intense activity. That’s impressive.

When you’re as busy as I am, it’s easy to make excuses about why extra effort is impossible. But adding a little extra movement to your normal, daily activities is far and away the easiest way to lose weight and improve your health, so why not?

I’ve also found a substantial meditative value in incorporating more physical activity. Several of my most complex problems have been solved during my walks and I’ve been plowing through podcasts and audiobooks, which I swear makes me smarter (I’m currently loving The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore). Your brain truly appreciates a break from the screen.

Ironically, it took noticing that I was “reading” less to make me examine what was different in my life—I realized I was listening to fewer audiobooks because I was walking less, and put 2 and 2 together. Problem solved.

It’s easy to be lazy and just wait for the elevator with everyone else, even though you know the time it saves you is insignificant. But today I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worth resisting that urge and making an effort to be more active. Try making it a game or competing with your friends using pedometers like the FitBit for extra motivation.

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Originally published September 12, 2011.


 

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Taste Psychology: Learning To Love Foods You Don’t Like

by | Sep 10, 2012
Roasted Beets With Fresh Mint and Chevre (click for recipe)

Roasted Beets With Fresh Mint and Chevre (click for recipe)

Chances are there are foods you love now that you hated as a kid. But how many foods do you still avoid just because you think you don’t like them?

Young palates struggle with things like mustard, onions and asparagus, and instead prefer more bland, less intense flavors. But as adults we sometimes cling to these preferences without ever stopping to question the value or meaning of our opinions.

But in reality, what joy is there in being a picky eater?

While it’s true that taste is subjective, I’ve never heard a convincing argument that it’s better to dislike a food than to like one. It is certainly more fun to like things, and it is often far more convenient. Just try getting a serious chef to make a signature dish without onions. It isn’t easy.

But is it possible to learn to like a food if you don’t like the taste?

It turns out that most of the time we decide what we like before we bother to experience it, and this prejudice clouds our perception of what we actually encounter. This effect of perception bias has been demonstrated repeatedly in psychology experiments where food color and taste have been manipulated. To see this for yourself, use food coloring to alter the appearance of several bowls of lemon Jell-O and have your friends guess what flavors they are tasting. Very few will say they taste lemon unless the color is still yellow.

The psychology of taste is further complicated by our natural aversion to things that are new or different from what we are expecting. Foods with unique textures such as mushrooms and okra often fall victim to this bias. In these cases the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the texture makes us slightly uncomfortable, and we interpret this feeling as a personal dislike. However, this reaction reflects the food’s uniqueness rather than its true character.

Our tendency to dislike and often hate things that extend beyond our perceptual comfort zones is explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. He argues that we make snap judgments about everything we encounter based on prior experience. And while this ability can sometimes help us make wise decisions, it can also explain why pilot testing can’t predict the success of new concept T.V. shows like Seinfeld.

In other words, sometimes our first impressions are wrong.

Knowing about this bias can help you overcome aversions to foods you think you don’t like, and even learn to love them. The first step is deciding that there is value in enjoying a food you currently do not enjoy. I’m not saying you should develop an appreciation for frozen pasta, but most fresh, natural whole foods are worth rediscovering for both taste and culture.

The second step is dedicating yourself to keep trying the rejected food until you find it prepared in a way you like. This is not as bad as it sounds, since there is a good chance that the reason you do not like a food in the first place is because what you were served as a child was either canned, frozen or of industrial (low) quality. Since peaches and plums taste completely different when you get them at the farmers market, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is true for green beans, broccoli and beets? Also, with each venture your taste will become more acclimated to the flavor and your aversion will dissipate.

Fine dining represents another great opportunity to explore foods you haven’t enjoyed in the past. I was finally won over on brussels sprouts after a spectacular meal in San Francisco, and now consider them one of my favorite autumn ingredients.

Even if a certain food doesn’t end up on your favorites list, learning to at least enjoy it in a casual way will enrich your life and help you develop an appreciation for new and unique experiences. The Chinese culture pays particular reverence to textures in food, and this attitude allows them to enjoy a far more diverse and interesting range of ingredients than any Western culture.

The key word here is “enjoy.” Eating vegetables is undeniably healthy, but the best reason to eat broccoli is that you absolutely love it.

What foods do you hate? Are you ready to get over it?

Originally published October 5, 2009.

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For The Love Of Food

by | Sep 7, 2012

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Most of the food news this week focused on the controversy over organic versus conventional agriculture, and I’m already tired of it. I normally post 10 links on Friday, but today I could only find seven additional good stories, so I didn’t waste your time by posting three more lame ones. It was a short week anyway, so consider this a holiday.

That said, all these are definitely worth reading. Learn why you should be scared of chicken breasts, romantic dinner settings can help you eat less, healthy eating helps your brain and more.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Is Organic Food Really The Same As Conventional?

by | Sep 5, 2012

Organic Golden Beets

On Monday a study from scientists at Stanford made headlines by concluding that there isn’t much health value in choosing organic food over conventional food. The headline didn’t surprise me in the least, I’ve seen similar ones at least a dozen times before, but there is still so much confusion among the general public around this topic that it’s worth revisiting in the wake of this new data.

Despite what organic zealots are telling you, this wasn’t a bad study. It was a meta-analysis that examined a number of relevant health measures comparing organic versus conventionally grown foods over the last several decades. They excluded processed foods from their analysis (this is a good thing), and looked at nutrient levels as well as pesticide contamination and antibiotic resistance in both produce and animal products. They were also careful about which organic standards were included in the study. Though the analysis has plenty of limitations (all meta-analyses do), their statistics were sound and the researchers were honest about their findings. What’s really annoying is how their results were interpreted by the media.

One problem is that the word “organic” is a huge umbrella that includes sustainable, biodynamic farming practices as well as huge-scale industrial operations that barely squeeze under the “certified organic” labeling standards. As a result there is a tremendous amount of heterogeneity (a scientific word for a wide range of differences) between the organic foods being tested, as well as the types of studies that are performed. As a result, it is difficult to measure consistent differences (aka statistical significance) between organic and conventional foods in this kind of study. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do much to further our understanding of how growing practices affect health.

The huge variance among farming practices that fit under the organic umbrella is not trivial. By far the largest segment of organic products on the market could be considered industrial organic, and the farms are closer to traditional industrial farms than most of us realize. Large organic farms are typically monoculture fields just like large conventional farms, though more crop rotation is required. Industrial organic poultry and beef farms also look oddly similar to conventional industrial feedlots, even if the animals are eating organic feed. In fact, both organic and conventional industrial farms are often owned by the same mega-corporations, and share the same bottom line of profit. There’s no reason to suspect that these industrial organic foods would be markedly more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.

In contrast, smaller biodynamic farms have extensive practices designed to build soil, improve robustness of crops and ensure bio and nutrient diversity. Instead of monocultures, these farms grow huge arrays of different vegetables and fruits. If a biodynamic farm raises animals they are given their natural, preferred diet of grass (for cows) or bugs and seeds (for birds). The animals are treated well and fed well, and are healthier as a result. If you want to learn more about the differences between conventional agriculture, big organic agriculture and biodynamic farming I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Joel Salatin’s latest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

Interestingly, despite the wide range in the quality of foods that qualify as organic, the Stanford study did find some significant differences. Organic produce contained significantly more phenols, the cancer fighting chemicals found in red wine, green tea, chocolate and many fruits and vegetables. However, this finding was glossed over in favor of the non-significant differences found between vitamin C, betacarotene and vitamin E levels in organic versus conventional foods.

It is reasonable to hypothesize that organic agriculture (at least in some cases) would be more nutritious because the soil standards for organics are much higher than for the depleted, synthetically fertilized conventional fields. Soil quality and weather (the raw ingredients) are by far the biggest factors in the nutrient levels of produce, with freshness and storage methods being next in line. Indeed, organic agriculture typically has more minerals and the Stanford team confirmed they contain significantly more phosphorus. But there is so much variety among plants, and from season to season, that you shouldn’t necessarily expect large, consistent differences in the levels of common vitamins like C and E from genetically identical plants.

That the Stanford team found measurable differences in total phenol content is pretty impressive. There are dozens of phenolic compounds that could benefit health in different and subtle ways. Nutrition science still can’t explain the benefits of all these nutrients, but having more of them certainly seems like a good thing.

Still lack of pesticides, not better nutrition, is the most commonly cited reason for buying organic over conventional foods. Pesticides are designed to kill things, and have been shown repeatedly to be dangerous for farm workers and other wildlife. They also accumulate more in the bodies of people who eat conventional produce compared to those who eat organic, and susceptible populations such as children, pregnant and nursing women, and the elderly are at particular risk. The Stanford study confirms organic agriculture has substantially fewer pesticide contaminations, but for some reason this finding was also glossed over since the conventional produce levels “didn’t exceed maximum allowed limits.” Logically, however, if limiting pesticide exposure is important to you (as it should be) organic produce is the better option.

The animal studies were even more encouraging. Small but significant improvements in fatty acid profiles were found for organic milk and chickens, which contained more healthy omega-3 fatty acids. More importantly, antibiotic resistant bacteria, the kind that are becoming more common (and deadly) in our own hospitals, were 33% more likely to be found on conventional meat products than on organic meat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria being created on industrial farms is one of the scariest threats to human health in modern history, and any measures that limit their proliferation should be seriously considered.

From this study it seems reasonable to conclude that organics, even industrial organics, are superior to conventional foods in some ways. Organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, sewage sludge (yes, human sewage is used on conventional food), irradiation or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and must help maintain or improve soil quality. These practices are much better for the environment, significantly limit the amount of pesticides you are exposed to, reduce the proliferation of dangerous pathogens and may be more nutritious.

Organic agriculture certainly sounds like it has some advantages over conventional ag to me.

Do you buy organic? Why?

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