Healthy Vegetable Sources of Protein and Iron

by | Aug 9, 2010
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Today’s post is written by a long-time Summer Tomato reader, Matthew Shook. Matt refers to himself as an herbivore, rather than a vegetarian, which I love. To me the term herbivore implies an intent to live from vegetables instead of simply consuming them in an exclusive way.

Although the term omnivore better describes my own eating habits, I do think plants are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Moreover, although I eat animals I prefer to rely on plants as my primary sources of protein and iron. My reasons include health, ecology and economy.

Those of you who knew me back in the day know how very weird this is. I always considered myself a carnivore through and through, and the thought of a meal based entirely on plants seemed borderline insane. Now for me it is more normal than abnormal.

For one thing, relying on plants makes cooking and shopping a lot easier. It’s also cheaper and, as I’ve come to learn, just as tasty.

Since I have learned more about food and health I have come to appreciate that vegetarian sources of protein are not simply a substitute for meat (how could beans replace steak?), but are an essential part of a healthy diet in their own right.

Whether vegetarian or not, I encourage you to incorporate healthy plant sources of protein and iron into your healthstyle.

For this I turn you over to Matt, our resident expert on herbivory. For more wonderful vegetarian recipes visit his blog Recipes for Disaster.

Healthy Sources of Protein and Iron From Vegetables

by Matthew Shook

When I became an herbivore six years ago I had a very elementary understanding of proper nutrition. Becoming an herbivore was very simple for me–I just stopped eating animals. I soon discovered that becoming a healthy and well-nourished herbivore was a far more complex endeavor.

New herbivores often face three obstacles at the beginning of their diet transition. One is a self-perceived lack of acceptable food options and diversity. The cereal, rice, beans and pasta get old real quick. This is why herbivores often expand their interests to ethnic and unfamiliar foods.

The second obstacle, unbeknownst to many herbivores, is a lack of high-quality protein and highly-absorbable iron.

A third obstacle during my transition was trying to convince my friends, family and loved ones that becoming vegetarian can be a healthy decision. My parents swore that if I didn’t eat meat I would wither away and die within one year’s time. In their eyes, it’s a miracle I’m still alive.

The following is a review of some of the best options for maintaining a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, but is also useful for health-conscious omnivores.

Protein

Most North Americans get more than enough protein in their diet (some even argue they consume too much protein). The problem, especially for herbivores, is that not all protein-rich foods are created equal.

Enter the “complete” protein.

A complete protein contains all of the nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), those that our bodies cannot produce themselves. So really, this should be a discussion of our need for amino acids, not necessarily protein.

Meat, fish, and dairy products are sources of high-quality protein, but herbivores need to look elsewhere for their fill of essential amino acids. (Sidenote: Some vegetarians consume dairy products, but relying on dairy as the foundation of your diet is, in my opinion, a very unhealthy way to go.)

This first vegetarian protein source is what I call “an herbivore’s best friend.”

Quinoa, while technically a seed, is often referred to as a “supergrain” from South America. It contains complete protein and is one of only two sources (the other is soybean) that are not animal-based. I have tried white, red, and black quinoa and find them all to be delicious when properly prepared. The red and black varieties tend to be a little “crunchier” than the white. 

Unlike many foods, quinoa is just as nutritious cooked as it is when sprouted and consumed.

(Here is the Summer Tomato recipe for Mexican-style quinoa salad.)

Amaranth, while not a complete protein, contains a large percentage of essential amino acids and is an outstanding source of plant-based protein. It is a “pseudograin” like quinoa, and can be used in dishes such as stir-fries, soups or just as a side dish to compliment seasoned vegetables. It can also be made into a pudding or be ground up into flour.

There are a wide variety of legumes (aka beans) capable of fulfilling an herbivore’s protein and palate requirements. Legumes are generally very low in the essential amino acid methionine, and therefore pair well with grains/pseudograins which fulfill this gap. Black beans, lentils, and chickpeas are three of the most nutritious and flavorful legumes.

This discussion would be incomplete without mentioning the most popular and highly debated legume: soybean. Soybeans have the highest amount of plant-based protein, by weight, of any other food. (Hemp seed and lentils are second and third respectively.) 

Soy can be a bit of a touchy subject as many health-minded individuals disagree about the long-term benefits of introducing the many forms of soy into your diet. Soy can be consumed as whole soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, textured soy protein, etc.  Also controversial is the genetic modification of the typical American soybean (thank you, Monsanto).

Tofu and tempeh are concentrated forms of soybean, and thus have high levels of protein. Typically unprocessed foods hold more nutritional value than their processed counterparts, but one can argue that tempeh (a fermented form of soybean) is the healthiest form of soy. The argument is that unfermented soy products like tofu contain “anti-nutrients” (phytates, enzyme inhibitors and goitrogens), which can cause digestive problems and nutrient deficiencies.

I limit my soy intake to very moderate amounts of tempeh and utilize it as a complement to well-balanced meals.

This last one should come as no surprise to Summer Tomato readers. While not an option for vegans, eggs can provide a great deal of nutrition to a vegetarian diet. Eggs contain all of the essential amino acids and are particularly beneficial to herbivores as a source of active (highly-absorbable) vitamin B-12, which is only found in significant portions in animal-based food.

What are your favorite vegetarian sources of protein?

Iron

Iron is essential to any healthy diet, herbivore or otherwise. Iron is a vital part of hemoglobin in blood, and a failure to absorb an adequate amount can lead to iron deficiency anemia. 

There is a big difference between consuming and absorbing an adequate amount of iron.

Two types of iron exist in the human body: heme iron and non-heme iron.  Heme iron can only be obtained from animal sources such as cow, chicken and fish. These animal sources contain about 40% heme iron.  The remaining 60% of animal-based sources, and 100% of plant-base sources, are comprised of non-heme iron. 

The semi-bad news for herbivores is that heme iron is well-absorbed and non-heme iron is less well-absorbed. The good news is there are other foods you can eat with your meal that enhance the absorption of non-heme iron sources. Non-heme iron enhancers include fruits high in vitamin C, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, potatoes, Brussels sprouts and white wine.

Spinach is one of best sources of iron available for herbivores, especially when cooked. I consume spinach regularly both raw and cooked, and find it is an excellent addition to numerous recipes including soups, salads, stir-fries and smoothies. 

I have read that spinach is an iron inhibitor (reduces the absorption of iron), but when paired with iron enhancers the essential element is readily absorbable.

Swiss chard, turnip greens, and bok choy have decent but not spectacular amounts of iron.

There are a few legumes that are excellent sources of iron. Lentils, lima beans, kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas and soybeans are the best sources in the legume family.  The wide range of flavor from these legumes enables herbivores to get more than enough iron from a variety of cuisines.

(For more nutrition information on lentils and the recipe for the dish pictured above read the Summer Tomato recipe for collards, carrots and French green lentils.)

Chickpea hummus, black bean burritos, dahl (lentil) soup and lima or soybean stir-fry are fantastic recipe ideas using iron-rich legumes. If you choose soybeans, be sure to add some iron enhancers to the meal since they are considered iron inhibitors as well.

Quinoa and amaranth, the two psuedograins mentioned for their high protein content, are also good vegetarian sources of iron. I try to maintain a varied diet by frequently switching up the different greens, legumes and (pseudo)grains in my meals.  I’ve included one of my favorite recipes that features many of these protein and iron-rich ingredients.

Black Bean and Quinoa Burrito

What are your favorite vegetarian sources of iron?  Are you concerned about iron inhibitors in your diet? Are you or someone you know ever been chronically anemic?

Originally published August 19, 2009

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How (And Why) To Cook And Freeze Large Batches Of Lentils

by | Mar 17, 2010
Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe

Healthy eating is important, but for most people (myself included) there are two factors that will almost always trump your best intentions to eat well: taste and time.

In the long run you will not win a battle of wills against your taste buds, and if you think about it you probably don’t even want to. If you hope to build long-term healthy eating habits I suggest focusing your efforts on making the food you cook at home taste as good or better than your default, less healthy alternatives.

Convenience is also a big factor in our daily food decisions. Time is one of our most precious resources, and although I recommend eating slowly I am a big advocate of cooking simply and quickly. In fact, one of the reasons I most often decide to cook at home is that making my own food is much quicker than visiting even the closest taqueria. It is also healthier and cheaper.

On a typical weeknight, I sit down to dinner 15-20 minutes after walking in the door. Granted, I usually cook for just myself, but doubling my recipes is fairly easily and doesn’t cost much in time.

This kind of efficiency does require a bit of planning, however. My meals are typically composed of a big pile of vegetables and either beans, lentils, eggs, fish, intact whole grains, or some combination of these. Half the battle is being sure these things are in your home when you need them.

My fridge is always stocked with fresh vegetables and herbs from my weekly farmers market trip. I also usually set aside a little time each week to cook a large batch of either beans or lentils, which are among my absolute favorite foods for adding substance, texture and a world of flavor to dishes.

I’ve written before about how I make beans using a pressure cooker, but today I want to focus on lentils. Lentils are smaller and more delicate than most beans. As a result, they cook faster and don’t require as much culinary foresight (beans require an overnight soak, while lentils do not).

There are many varieties of lentils. Some are more firm and keep their shape after cooking, making them ideal for adding to stir fries and salads. They can also be used as a substitute for or addition to grain dishes. Examples of firm lentils are French green, black beluga and the most common Spanish brown varieties.

Yellow, red and orange lentils are even smaller and more delicate, which causes them to fall apart and turn to liquid during cooking. These lentils are common ingredients in soups, stews and Indian food.

Because I frequently use lentils as a last minute addition to vegetable dishes to make them more substantial, I have worked to optimize the cooking and storage for a few of the firm varieties. My preference is for the French green and black beluga, but since black lentils are harder to find I performed my experiments exclusively on the green and brown varieties.

My goal was to find the optimal cooking time and the best freezing methods for lentils. Specifically I was hoping to find a convenient method of freezing individual servings that could be stored indefinitely and used within minutes at any time, similar to my method of freezing brown rice.

Traditionally I cook lentils on the stove top in a regular covered sauce pan, but this time I also tried the pressure cooker to see if it could reduce cooking time. In each of my experiments I used 1 cup of dry lentils and 6 cups of water with salt. I added the lentils to a pot of cold water and started my timer when the pot hit the flame.

When preparing lentils, always be sure to rinse them and check for small pebbles before cooking. I do this by slowly pouring my dry lentils into a fine mesh strainer (while checking for pebbles), then rinsing them under the faucet for 30 seconds or so.

A few things surprised me during my experiments. The first is that French green lentils have a much more robust, complex flavor than brown lentils, which have a more subtle flavor and creamier texture. Brown lentils also retained more water and didn’t hold their shape quite as well as the green lentils, and took substantially longer to cook. For these reasons, I strongly preferred the green lentils in my experiments, though I would happily use brown lentils in a hearty stew or as a bed for meat or poultry.

Additionally, because brown lentils didn’t hold their shape as well, I was unable to freeze them in individual plastic wrapped servings like rice. However this method worked wonderfully for green lentils.

As you might expect, my success at freezing lentils in plastic wrap depended on how much liquid I could remove from them before freezing.

For best results, strain lentils very well using a fine meshed strainer before wrapping in individual servings. Carefully place 1/2 cup of lentils in the center of a square of plastic. Fold two opposite edges over the lentils, twist the ends and tie them in a half knot at the top, trying to avoid folding plastic into the lentil ball. To use, run the frozen ball under warm (not hot) water until you can untie the knot. Place lentils in a bowl and microwave 2-3 minutes. Stir with a fork and use.

Both brown and green lentils also froze well in plastic tupper containers. If you know you will be using lentils regularly, you can split a batch you prepare into two or more containers, keep one in the fridge for use and freeze the others. When you are ready, transfer your frozen lentils from the freezer to the fridge the day before you want to use them. Alternatively you could freeze them in Pyrex or glass containers and simply microwave when you want to use them.

I was also curious if a pressure cooker could reduce the time necessary to prepare lentils. For beans a pressure cooker provides an obvious advantage, since on a stove top they can take hours to cook thoroughly. But lentils take only 30-40 min and do not require pre-soaking as beans do. Boiling lentils requires very little attention (make the rest of your food while they cook) and cleanup is easier, so I was curious if there would still be a time advantage using a pressure cooker.

I got different results for the different varieties. For green lentils the pressure cooker did not provide much of an advantage over regular boiling. I found the optimal pressure cooker time for green lentils to be 5-6 minutes, but it takes about 15 minutes for it to pressurize (could maybe be reduced with less water) and another 5 for depressurizing after cooking. Given the extra cleanup/hassle of using the pressure cooker over a sauce pan, the 35 minutes it took to boil the same amount of lentils feels like a better deal.

Another advantage of not using the pressure cooker for green lentils is it’s possible to check the texture as they cook. With the pressure cooker I found it was easy to undercook or overcook the lentils, and the time window was very narrow. This is not ideal if you want the lentils to keep their shape for freezing.

On the other hand, the time advantage gained by using a pressure cooker for the bigger brown lentils was substantial. Brown lentils cooked completely in 7-8 minutes in the pressure cooker, bringing the total cook time to under 30 minutes. However it took well over 45 minutes for them to soften up with boiling alone.

Though I didn’t test them in these experiments, my experience with red and yellow lentils is that they cook in a pressure cooker in about 4 minutes, much faster than simply boiling. This substantially cuts the amount of time it takes to cook with them.

Summary

French green lentils were my favorite for flavor, ease of cooking and storage. They are easiest to prepare by boiling with salt in a regular covered sauce pan for approximately 35 minutes. If well strained, they freeze beautifully in either individually wrapped balls or in a tupper. They can be kept 4-5 days in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Brown lentils take longer to cook and time is saved by using a pressure cooker. These lentils can be frozen, but do better in a large solid container than in individually wrapped servings.

Either variety stores well in the freezer and has the potential to substantially cut down on daily cooking times when prepared in large batches and used repeatedly.

Do you freeze lentils? Do you prefer to use a pressure cooker?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How To Eat Healthy When You Have No Time

by | Dec 7, 2009
Photo by liquene

Photo by liquene

I’m always pretty busy, but these past couple weeks I have been especially slammed with work. I have a big thesis committee meeting coming up in lab that I want to be very well-prepared for. I also launched a 25-page free healthy eating guide last week, all amidst my 30th birthday and Thanksgiving in different cities.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how I do it all (I stay focused and work hard), but some of you have asked an even more interesting question:

How do I have time to eat healthy?

The most truthful answer is that I always have time to eat healthy, because it is not something I consider optional. Healthy eating doesn’t really take any more time than unhealthy eating, it just requires a little more foresight. Luckily I have automated my healthstyle so that healthy eating is actually easier for me than eating junk.

However, when time is especially strained I do make a few adjustments to save on prep time and clean up.

Here are a few tricks I’ve been using to have healthy meals in under 15 minutes.

8 Quick Healthy Eating Tips

  1. Focus on single vegetable meals. If I were asked to make the quickest meal I could think of, I would grab a bunch of kale, a clove of garlic, some sea salt and maybe some pistachio nuts, put them in a pan and cook them for about 7 minutes. You can do this with chard, spinach, fennel, broccolini or any other green vegetable. For protein and carbohydrate I throw in some beans or lentils at the end. These aren’t the most creative meals in the world, but they are healthy, filling, quick and delicious enough to make friends jealous. I could live on these dinners for weeks at a time, and they only leave one pan to clean.
  2. Count on legumes. As mentioned above, it is important to have something other than vegetables in your meals or you will get really hungry. Nuts are a great addition to anything, but the most bang for your buck is beans and lentils. I make huge batches of these once or twice a week and throw them in virtually everything I cook. A pressure cooker makes legume preparation a piece of cake. If I’m really in a hurry I will just dress some legumes with vinaigrette, maybe throw in some herbs or fruit and call it lunch.
  3. Eat salads. I also add beans and lentils to salads to make them more substantial. It takes less than 5 minutes to slice up some Napa cabbage, toss in some beans, cut up a pear and sprinkle on walnuts with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for a quick lunch. Salads don’t require cooking and I just eat it out of the bowl I make it in.
  4. Scramble eggs. By far the fastest cooking protein you can get is eggs. Scrambling 2-3 eggs takes about 2 minutes. Saute some spinach with a little garlic (you can use the same pan if you cook the greens first) and you have a healthy homemade meal in under 10 minutes. This works for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  5. Eat breakfast for dinner. Eggs aren’t the only food that can break the typical American meal pattern. If cooking at night really isn’t an option, sometimes I will just double up on my normal breakfast of muesli, fruit and plain yogurt and have it for dinner. Sure I’d rather eat leafy greens, but intact grains are sure better (and faster) than the burrito place down the street.
  6. Cook in large batches. In addition to legumes I also make intact whole grains in big batches and freeze them in single servings. These can be thawed in the  microwave in 1-2 minutes and added to any meal (stirfry, salads, soups, etc.) to make them more satisfying. During the autumn and winter I also rely on roasted winter squash like kabocha for additional vegetables/carbohydrates. My favorite is to cut a kabocha squash in half, remove seeds, rub the inside with olive and sea salt and roast, face down for 30-45 minutes at 400F. Three or 4 slices of winter squash make a plate of greens a lot more interesting. Store your cooked squash in a tupper and add it to various meals throughout the week. I like kabocha, red kuri and delicata squashes because, unlike butternut, you can eat the skin (no peeling).
  7. Have a reliable takeout option. The only trouble I sometimes run into is not having enough ingredients in the house to make a solid meal before heading out. For times like this I rely on a local artisan market, Bi-Rite, that has awesome healthy prepared foods. I’ll pick up a pint of lentil, chickpea or quinoa salad from their deli fridge and a piece of fruit, then I’m good to go. It is worth it to hunt down a place like this near your home or work that you know you can count on to pick something up in a pinch. Whole Foods has great prepared food options if you can find one near you.
  8. Carry fruit and nuts. The worst case scenario is that you get stuck outside the house with nothing but vending machines within walking distance. If you always have trail mix or nuts in your bag you can usually put off a meal until you can find something healthy. Don’t leave home without it.

What tricks do you use to eat healthy when you have no time?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

30 Ways To Slow and Prevent Aging

by | Nov 18, 2009

Darya PinoToday is my 30th birthday and a perfect time to reflect on life, the universe and everything.

Despite being female and thus held to tough and often unrealistic physical standards, hitting the end of my third decade doesn’t cause me anxiety about either my appearance or place in the world.

In my experience, age is not an amount of time but a state of mind. As a child I always wanted to be a grown up, so I acted like one. It freaked my parents out sometimes, but that’s just how I was. In my mind, I still feel pretty much the same in that regard. I love to work hard and I thrive in positions of responsibility. Since both these traits get more important with age, I have actually enjoyed stepping into the adult role I’ve always felt I belonged in.

But that’s only one part of me.

In many other ways I’m as juvenile as ever. If you spend much time with me on Twitter (@summertomato) you’ve probably noticed I have the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy. I blame my dad for that one. I’m also still shocked every time I hear that friends my age are getting married and having children. In my brain we’re not nearly old enough for that yet! But in reality, it is my friends who are normal and I’m the outlier.

Oh, and did I mention I’m still in school? Up until a couple years ago I carried a backpack with me everywhere, for better or for worse.

Darya's GunsAll these things give me a sense of agelessness, so it is hard to think of this birthday as anything but another day to do things I love. But part of my peace of mind certainly comes from the fact that I’m in pretty good shape physically–probably the best of my life. And at 30 this is definitely something to be proud of.

Summer Tomato readers know I attribute my good health almost entirely to my eating habits. I also spend a good amount of time in the gym, though I don’t workout nearly as much as I used to. But healthstyle extends to more than just diet and exercise.

Here I’ve compiled my favorite 30 habits to slow aging and keep you young in more than just your heart.

30 Healthstyle Tips To Keep You Young

  1. Be happy The physical damage caused to your body by stress has only recently become appreciated by the scientific community. Fill your life with things you love and get rid of almost everything else. Practice stress relieving activities like meditation and exercise, and learn to appreciate joy when you find it. Happiness does a body good.
  2. Eat vegetables There is good evidence that oxidative damage caused by toxins and metabolism contributes to the aging process at a cellular level. Foods (but not supplements) high in antioxidants seem to protect us from oxidative stress.
  3. Avoid sugar Sugar is a direct cause of aging and significantly reduces lifespan in organisms from yeast to primates. Not by a small amount either.
  4. Moisturize The appearance of your skin is largely dependent upon moisture. Help it out by using moisturizers to keep your skin soft and hydrated. Work with a professional to determine what type is best for you.
  5. Don’t raise your eyebrows Credit my mother for teaching me this one, it has been a lifesaver. As a kid she used to warn me about raising my eyebrows, saying it would give me wrinkles and I’d regret it. I thought she was crazy, but still learned to express myself without much forehead crinkling. As a result I have far fewer forehead lines than some people years younger than me.
  6. Sleep For me the most important determinant of how I look (and feel) on a given day is how much sleep I get. Seven hours is my ideal, but everyone is different.
  7. Eat fish Some evidence suggests that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are particularly beneficial to the skin.
  8. Wear sunscreen I love the sun and spend as much time in it as possible, but I never walk out the door without sunscreen on my face. UV radiation from the sun damages your skin and promotes aging.
  9. Don’t smoke Smoking is one of the easiest ways to look older than you really are and shorten your life at the same time. Avoid both primary and secondary smoke like the plague.
  10. Step out of your comfort zone Mental exercise seems to be one of the key elements of quality aging, but this doesn’t mean you should sit around all day doing crossword puzzles. Neuroscientist and cognitive aging specialist Dr. Adam Gazzaley suggests going out of your way to challenge yourself mentally, doing things like traveling and learning new languages even over the age of 60.
  11. Take vitamin D Some research suggests that vitamin D may be particularly important in slowing the aging process. The jury is still out on the value of vitamin D supplements for aging, but they seem to have enough other benefits that it’s worth the investment.
  12. Eat fruit Like vegetables, fruits have an enormous amount of antioxidants and help with hydration. Vitamin C in particular is thought to benefit skin.
  13. No foundation or powder makeup Generally I avoid putting any makeup directly onto my skin. I realize I have a very flexible work environment and this is not possible for every woman, but skipping the makeup does help maintain your skin’s hydration and elasticity. I do wear makeup occasionally, maybe once or twice per week. But in general I find that mascara and lip gloss are enough for most situations.
  14. Hydrate Your skin is very sensitive to water levels. Stay hydrated by sipping water and eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day.
  15. Whiten teeth I know this isn’t something you can find at the farmers market, but when you drink as much coffee and red wine as I do, minor (and admittedly superficial) fixes like teeth whitening can go a long way. If you don’t believe me, try and remember the last time you saw a 20-year-old with yellow teeth….
  16. Wear sunglasses If you’re a happy person (and I know you are), your wrinkles will most likely be caused by smiling and show up predominantly around your eyes. Block out extra sun (and look super cool) by always wearing sunglasses when you go outside.
  17. Eat beans and lentils Legumes are a fabulous source of minerals that can help keep your skin hydrated and looking young.
  18. Tea Afternoon tea time is one of the greatest discoveries I’ve ever made. Not only is tea full of antioxidants and other cancer-fighting compounds, a midday break can be just what the doctor ordered to sip away stress.
  19. Cardio I’m not the biggest believer in cardio exercise for weight loss, but it is still important for vascular health. Not to mention how awesome you feel after a good session. Cardio doesn’t need to kill you, but you should do it regularly.
  20. Strength training Building strong, toned muscles is one of the most effective ways to look younger than your years. Ask anyone who looks fabulous and they’ll swear by strength training. A little goes a long way.
  21. Eat intact whole grains Intact grains (not fake “whole” grains that are ground into flour) are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and soluble fiber. They are also perfect fuel for those killer workouts.
  22. Olive oil It is hard to think of something more versatile, healthy and delicious than olive oil. It breaks my heart that dietary fat got such a bad rap the past few decades, since the benefits of healthy fats like olive oil are innumerable. Fat isn’t just “not bad” for you, it’s essential.
  23. Kill your television We all have things we enjoy watching (I’m partial to NBA championship teams), but if it takes up a significant amount of your time each week (>5 hrs) it may be time to reevaluate. How many years of your life do you really want to spend on your couch?
  24. Don’t stuff yourself Cutting back on calories is the single most effective way to slow aging and extend life. I don’t advise starving yourself, but it’s a good idea to avoid overeating in any situation.
  25. Eat nuts Nuts are the perfect snack food and are filled with anti-aging fats, vitamins and minerals. They are also great for suppressing appetite–just don’t eat more than a handful.
  26. Avoid dairy Studies of aging skin have shown that milk and milk products are associated with acne, which can lead to scaring and age spots.
  27. Avoid processed meats Processed meats are associated with many different health problems in humans. No need to get too hung up on this, but you may not want to eat deli meat every single day if you want to stay young.
  28. No processed carbohydrates Just like sugar, processed carbohydrates are a direct cause of aging and disease. I eat these things occasionally, but don’t let it happen too often.
  29. Coconut oil Fats come in all different shapes and sizes, and I try to incorporate a good mix of all of them. Medium-chain fatty acids like those found in coconut oil are starting to be recognized as important by researchers, but the evidence is limited. Coconut oil is also a healthy source of saturated fat for vegetarians. I always use coconut oil when cooking Southeast Asian food.
  30. Red wine Red wine has a powerful anti-aging compound in it known as resveratrol. Though it is unlikely that the dosage of resveratrol in red wine is high enough to impact lifespan, drinking alcohol in moderation is also associated with decreased risk of heart disease and other vascular problems. Cheers!

Do you have any anti-aging secrets?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Eco-Atkins Diet May Be Healthier Alternative for Weight Loss

by | Jun 10, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

A new study published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that both weight loss and risk factors for heart disease can be improved following a vegan version of the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet.

The “Eco-Atkins” diet focuses primarily on soy, nuts and wheat proteins (gluten) to increase the amount of vegetarian protein in the diet. Carbohydrates were restricted to 130 g/day, which is on the higher end of most low-carb diets. All starchy foods such as bread, baked goods, potatoes and rice were eliminated. Carbohydrates were provided in the form of whole, intact grains (barley and oats) and low-starch vegetables.

In a small (47 participants), short-term randomized controlled trial, this diet lowered bad LDL cholesterol by 20%, without negatively impacting good HDL cholesterol (statin drugs improve cholesterol levels by 30%). The diet also substantially lowered blood pressure and other markers of cardiovascular disease, such as triglycerides and apolipoprotein B.

The original meat-based Atkins diet has been shown to be effective for temporary weight loss (after 1 year the effects of the Atkins diet are diminished), but cardiovascular risk factors such as LDL cholesterol and blood pressure are not substantially improved under the traditional Atkins regimen.

Interestingly, a traditional Atkins-style diet based on animal protein was not used as a control in this study, so a true comparison of the diets cannot be made using the present data. Instead the researchers chose a control diet representative of a typical high-carb, low-fat vegetarian diet that included eggs and dairy products. Both diets tested in this study represented a 60% decrease in total calories.

Because of the study design, we cannot conclude that this diet is more effective than the Atkins diet for health, though you would predict it would be if future studies made this comparison. On the other hand, it does seem that a plant-based high-protein diet is more effective at improving health than a high-carbohydrate lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, at least in the short-term in a highly controlled environment.

This study took place over the course of 4 weeks, and all the food was provided for the particpants by the researchers. Thus, compliance in the program was very high. It is not clear if the participants would have had the same level of success if they were instructed to provide their own food to comply with the dietary programs.

Despite this, satiety levels were notably improved in the high-protein group and it would be expected that the increase in satiety would encourage greater compliance in a free living situation.

A small four week study, however, tells us very little about the effectiveness of this diet. While it is possible to improve risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure in such a short period of time, disease outcome is the true measure of a successful diet. Also, this study did not test the feasibility of the Eco-Atkins diet in the long-term, and it is likely many dieters would object to a strictly vegan regimen.

Interesting points raised by this preliminary study include:

  • Plant-based, high-protein diets may be more effective at improving cholesterol and other cardiovascular measures than traditional lacto-ovo vegetarian diets.
  • Short-term weight loss is primarily determined by the number of calories consumed, not macronutrient content.
  • Low-carb diets that include intact whole grains and plant-based protein can be effective at improving both weight and cardiovascular risk factors in the short-term.
  • Plant-based high-protein diets can increase satiety compared to high-carb vegetarian diets.

However, many questions must be addressed before this diet can be recommended to individuals trying to improve cardiovascular measures and lose weight.

New questions:

  • Can the Eco-Atkins diet be maintained in the long-term by normal individuals?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet continue to improve cardiovascular risk factors including weight loss after 4 weeks?
  • What would result from this study if beans and lentils were used instead of soy and gluten?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet improve disease outcome?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet extend life?
  • Does the Eco-Atkins diet affect quality of life?
  • Can these effects be attained through other diets that include some animal protein, more whole grains or more fat?
  • Is the effectiveness of the Eco-Atkins diet affected by an individual’s level of insulin resistance?
  • Can adding fish further improve the results of the Eco-Atkins diet?
  • Can a further reduction in carbohydrates improve the results?
  • Will you get these same results if the study is NOT funded by the soy industry?

In summary, the results of this study are interesting and encouraging, especially for those of us who think both carbohydrates and meat should be limited in a healthy diet. I very much look forward to future studies exploring this idea.

What concerns me most is the lack of marine omega-3 fatty acids (fish) in the Eco-Atkins diet, which could potentially improve cardiovascular measures even further. Fish is also important for cognitive health and may lower cancer risk.

I am also worried that a strictly vegan diet would not be feasible in the long-term for many Americans. Moreover, it is not necessarily the healthiest option available. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a particular concern, but could be addressed with supplements. Generally, however, I do not recommend relying on supplements for optimal nutrition.

Finally, this study was funded by a company that makes soy and gluten products. Personally I would have prefered to see these protein sources used in combination with other things such as beans and lentils. Many people question how much soy can be safely consumed and gluten intolerance is more common than ever, so wouldn’t it be interesting to know if there were safer alternatives? It really annoys me to see science being influenced by industry funding.

What do you think of the Eco-Atkins diet?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How To Cook With An Unfamiliar Ingredient

by | Apr 27, 2009
Amaranth

Amaranth Leaves

Last week a new farmers market started up at the UCSF Mission Bay campus where I work. As someone who makes it my business to know what’s happening at our local markets, I was very interested to check out what they were offering. To my surprise and delight, there was a tremendous variety of interesting, high-quality goods and produce. But I already had a bunch of fresh groceries at home from my Saturday market trip, so I only purchased a few special things I just couldn’t resist.

The first thing that caught my eye were the beautiful Asian greens I spotted at the beginning of my exploration (sorry, I’m not familiar with these farms yet so I do not remember the name). I had never seen okra or bitter melon leaves for sale before, though I am familiar with these vegetables. What really grabbed my attention though were these beautiful amaranth leaves.

I had always considered amaranth a grain, and did not know it was also a leafy vegetable. But apparently amaranth greens are incredibly popular in India, Africa, China, Vietnam and Greece. The leaves are fairly delicate and I would describe the taste as similar to spinach if spinach were Indian. In other words, the leaves have earthy and spicy undertones reminiscent of chai tea. Needless to say I was very excited to see what I could make with them.

When I got home with my greens I did a quick Google search for amaranth leaves recipes and virtually everything that came up on the first search page was for Indian dishes–perfect! I read through a few of them and realized that the most common use for amaranth leaves is in a lentil dish with spices and tamarind.

Since I had most of the required ingredients in the house, I decided to give it a try. Not too long ago I purchased an assortment of red and yellow Indian lentils from a specialty store in my neighborhood. Usually I have concentrated tamarind in my refrigerator for those occasional Thai food cravings. I didn’t have the fresh tomato most recipes called for, so I used half a can of diced tomatoes from my pantry (I used the rest in my roasted fava beans dish). I also keep standard Indian spices in the house such as cumin seeds, garam marsala (a traditional Indian spice blend), curry powder, tumeric and ghee (clarified butter).

See how easy it is to be creative when you have a well-stocked pantry?

The dish turned out amazing, and the batch I made was so large I have been eating it for days (not bad for a $2 ingredient). But I am not going to give you the recipe, because that is not the purpose of this post. Instead I wanted to give you an idea about how I approach shopping and cooking. If something is unique or catches my eye at the market, I inquire to the vendor about what it tastes like and how it is used. When I get home I look up recipes online until I find one or two that look yummy and are not too hard to make. Sometimes this involves changing the recipe slightly to match the ingredients I have available, or combining two or more recipes together to accommodate my own modest cooking skills or time allowance.

You do not have to be a brilliant chef to explore cooking this way, and you will certainly get better at it the more you practice. The key is digging through Google until you find a recipe that doesn’t scare you too much. You can also try services such as Recipe Puppy that allow you to type in an ingredient and receive a collection of recipes from around the internet. Recipe Puppy didn’t work particularly well for amaranth (no results), but it is useful for most ingredients and can be a terrific source of inspiration.

Next time you shop, go out of your way to find something you haven’t cooked before and see what you can come up with. Who knows, you may actually find a new favorite food and upgrade your healthstyle in the process!

Don’t forget to come back and let us know what you learned. Tell us your favorite accidental ingredient discovery!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Quick Fix: Collards, Carrots and French Green Lentils

by | Apr 24, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Last week I wrote about the perfect balanced meal and featured a picture of my dinner the previous night: collard greens, carrots and French green lentils. Since then I have had more than a few requests for the recipe and am happy to provide an encore to the How To Get Started Eating Healthy book.

Lentils are incredibly nutritious and easier to cook than dried beans. They also have the third highest protein content of any plant. A single serving of lentils contains 18 g of protein, 63% of your daily fiber and 37% of your iron in only 230 calories!

That’s more iron than 1,123 calories of prime rib. Remember when I said every plant could be considered a superfood? Well, lentils are no exception.

Lentils and other legumes are also great for weight loss and are a fabulous alternative to grains for individuals who are insulin resistant or diabetic, since they have minimal impact on blood sugar.

For a pan cooked dish, you want lentils that are fairly robust and maintain their shape after cooking. I prefer French green lentils, but standard brown lentils also hold up pretty well. Simply boil them in excess water with a pinch of salt for 20 minutes or so until tender (do not overcook). Strain, then toss them in with your vegetables at the end of cooking just to coat with flavor and heat through. Lentils freeze well, but can be kept fresh in the refrigerator 3-5 days.

In this recipe, kale or chard can easily substitute for the collards. If you want to use spinach, add it last after the lentils. Fold it in and allow it to wilt into the dish.

Collards, Carrots and French Green Lentils

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 collard leaves
  • 4-5 medium carrots
  • 1/2 cup French green lentils, cooked
  • 1 small leek
  • 1 clove garlic
  • olive oil
  • sea salt
  • lemon juice (optional)
  • chopped parsley (optional)

If you are making your lentils from scratch, quickly pick through them for pebbles, give them a rinse then boil them in excess water with a pinch of salt for 20-30 minutes, until tender. Even though I rarely consume more than half cup (cooked) in one sitting, I usually like to cook up at least one cup dry (at least 4 servings) and save the rest for later. Start them boiling as soon as you step into the kitchen and start cooking your vegetables at least 15 minutes after you turn them on.

In the mean time clean and chop your leek and mince your garlic. Peel and slice your carrots at a sharp angle to maximize the surface area for cooking. Clean your collard leafs, chop off the stems then stack them on top of each other in a pile. Cut into one inch squares, removing any sections that have thick pieces of stem.

Heat a pan on medium heat, then add olive oil. When the oil swirls easily in the pan, add the leeks and allow to cook for 1-2 minutes, until the pieces break up and become tender and translucent. Add carrots and stir. Cook 2 minutes, then add collards. Sprinkle with sea salt and continue to cook, stirring occasionally.

Be careful with your heat when pan frying collard greens–don’t let it get too high. The leaves easily trap steam from cooking, and I had a few jump out of my pan onto the floor. They make a loud popping sound too, which is very exciting. If it makes you feel safer, you can cover the greens for the first minute or two while they soften.

Shortly after the collards turn bright green from cooking (4-5 minutes), clear a space in the center of the pan and add your minced garlic in a single layer (you can add a touch more oil if necessary). Let garlic cook 30 seconds or so until fragrant, then add the lentils and mix with the other vegetables. A squeeze of lemon juice, zest or a dash of vinegar is a good addition here, if you like. A sprinkle of your favorite herb, e.g. Italian parsley, basil or thyme, adds depth and complexity if you have them around.

Continue cooking 3-4 more minutes, stirring every 30 seconds. If you are using cold lentils, cook until warm. Adjust salt and serve.

This dish is wonderful as a main course, by itself or with brown rice. It can easily be scaled to accommodate a large crowd if you have a big enough pan.

What flavors do you love to pair with lentils?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Pantry

by | Apr 8, 2009
Pantry

Pantry

Nothing has a bigger impact on your health than the food you choose to eat (unless you smoke cigarettes). A diet rich in whole vegetables, grains, legumes, fish and fruit can prevent and even reverse most of the diseases that devastate our society. The good news is that farm-fresh, seasonal produce happens to be some of the most delicious food on the planet.

Unfortunately, our culture does not make it easy to eat foods that are both healthy and delicious. Your typical grocery store is filled with processed, packaged junk that barely resembles the plants and animals it came from (usually corn and soybeans). Even the produce section is populated with clones shipped from halfway around the globe.

But eating healthy is not impossible. I manage to pull it off, despite a long-ish commute and impossible work schedule. All you need is a little planning and a road map.

For many people the most difficult thing about starting to eat healthy is learning how to prepare and cook food. It is very difficult to upgrade your healthstyle by eating in restaurants. You have got to be able to shop and cook for yourself.

This is the beginning of a series of posts designed to give you detailed instructions on How To Get Started Eating Healthy. It is the perfect place to begin if you are new to Summer Tomato. Once you have learned to integrate these instructions into your normal routine, nothing on this blog should pass over your head. You will be able to follow any recipe, conquer any ingredient, get healthy and love every minute of it.

For more free healthy eating tips be sure to subscribe to Summer Tomato.

Keep in mind I was once as clueless in the kitchen as I was at the farmers market. I found my healthstyle through trial and error and created Summer Tomato to share what I have learned.

If you are beginning with a barren kitchen and are not sure what you need to get started, check out the Summer Tomato Shop. Once you are there, use the navigation in the sidebar on the right and browse through Kitchen Gear.

Once you have all your pots, pans and cutting boards you need to Stock Your Pantry. I have created a list of essential items that should always be in your kitchen. Because these things all store well and can be purchased in large quantities, you do not need to buy them often. But check your supplies regularly and be sure you always have everything here:

    • Olive oil You really cannot cook anything until you have olive oil. I go through olive oil relatively quickly, so I am sure to buy large bottles. Look for cold-pressed olive oils in dark bottles. For cooking I try to get the highest quality oil I can find at a reasonable price. My current favorite is Whole Foods 365 Organic brand extra-virgin olive oil. I buy the full 1 liter bottle.
    • Sea salt Whenever I come across vegetables I do not like they tend to have two things in common: they are 1) over-cooked or 2) under-salted (or both). But salt is bad for you, right? Yes, it is bad to eat the inconceivable volumes of sodium present in processed and packaged food. But you would be hard pressed to ingest that much salt if you add it yourself. It is possible to over-salt your vegetables, but under normal circumstances you can determine the appropriate saltiness by taste. In contrast, processed food tastes gross (grosser, I should say) without salt. You can add a reasonable amount of delicious sea salt to natural foods to enhance their flavor without much worry. Sea salt helps make fresh vegetables taste amazing, and if you eat them you are substantially better off. (note: If you have very high blood pressure, potassium salt might be better for you. Talk to your doctor about your options.)
    • Pepper Pepper is an essential spice you should always have in your pantry. It has better flavor if it is freshly ground.
    • Vinegar Frequently the easiest way to salvage a struggling dish is to add some kind of acid. Acid has a slightly sour flavor that can help brighten a dish. Vinegar and lemon are the go to choices for most cooks, so you need to have them around. Vinegar (and oil) is also what I use to dress salads. Balsamic vinegar is particularly wonderful because of its sweetness. But if you don’t like it experiment until you find a vinegar you like. Red wine vinegar is my next recommendation. Rice vinegar is also handy to have around, particularly if you like cooking Asian cuisines.
    • Fancy olive oil Speaking of salads, I always keep a top-shelf, fancy olive oil in the house for when the dish I’m creating depends on olive oil itself for flavor. Salad is the most basic example, but there are many instances where a better oil is worth the investment. You should enjoy the taste of your food, a few extra dollars for an outstanding olive oil is more than worth it.
    • Soy sauce One of the easiest ways to change up the flavor profile of a dish is to add a splash of soy sauce. You should always have some. Keep it in the fridge after opening it though.
    • Whole grain cereal I have found it incredibly difficult to find cereals–even whole grain cereals–that aren’t loaded with sugar. Muesli is my best recommendation, but it usually needs some help in the flavor department. I add fruit to fix this. Oatmeal (stove top) is a perfect breakfast if you have time for it (10 minutes). Whatever you choose, make sure you find a cereal made of intact grains that you are happy to eat most every day. For variety, I alternate between cold and warm cereals and change the fruit I use with the seasons.
    • Assorted whole grains Intact grains are so old-fashioned these days they are pretty hard to come by. If you do not eat them at home, you will almost certainly never eat them. Brown rice and quinoa are the two I rely on most. Quinoa cooks easily in 15 minutes. Brown rice takes longer, but I make it in large batches and freeze it in single servings that microwave in 1 minute. I also keep whole grain couscous around, even though it isn’t a real whole grain. I just love it in Moroccan food.

    • Dried legumes Legumes are some of the healthiest foods on the planet, and are notoriously under-appreciated. Lentils and beans are not just a vegetarian protein source, they are essential to a healthy diet regardless of carnivory. One benefit of them being out of fashion is that they are incredibly cheap and can usually be purchased in an unadulterated form. Lentils are wonderful because they cook quickly, in about 20 minutes. There are many varieties of lentils with different purposes. I recommend starting with regular brown or French green lentils because they keep their shape well. Beans require soaking and still take at least an hour to cook, unless you have a pressure cooker (I couldn’t live without a pressure cooker now). You can buy canned beans if you prefer, but they are far more expensive and have inferior taste and texture.
    • Bouillon cubes I had never heard of these until I started cooking, but I use them pretty regularly now. Bouillon cubes are essentially dried, concentrated broth. I keep chicken bouillon around for couscous and soups. Beef bouillon tastes amazing and I love to add it to beans and richer dishes. They make veggie bouillon too. You can get these everywhere, probably even your local liquor store.
    • Boxed broth Since these keep for at least a year, it is good to always have a few boxes around. Soups are great to whip up for dinner when you are tired and don’t feel like cooking anything fancy. If you always have broth, you can always have soup. I buy the 1 qt chicken and veggie broths. The smaller boxes or cans are good for making sauces.

  • Canned tomatoes I keep at least one 28-oz can of diced tomatoes at all times. Canned tomatoes are the base of so many different cuisines and make for wonderful meals. Tomatoes are, ironically, one of the few canned vegetables that don’t repulse me.
  • Nuts You should see the shoebox I use to store all the nuts I buy, it is bursting at the seams. Nuts are healthy, filling and turn food from average to awesome. I throw cashews in stir frys, cook my chard with pistachios and have almonds for a snack almost every day at work. Get in the habit of cooking with nuts or adding them to salads rather than just eating them plain. My kitchen always has raw walnuts (store in the freezer, they go rancid the quickest), roasted unsalted pistachios and sliced almonds. Hazelnuts, macadamia nuts and peanuts are also wonderful. Go nuts!
  • Dried fruit With plump, juicy raisins in my oatmeal I do not need to add sugar or honey. Dried apricots are wonderful in Moroccan soups or couscous. Dates are a great after dinner treat. Dried fruits store well and come in handy, you should keep the ones you like around and be creative with them while cooking.
  • Canned fish My canned fish of choice lately is sardines. Sardines are incredibly rich in omega-3s and vitamin D. When skinless and boneless, they are also delicious on bread or in a stir fry. My second choice is canned salmon (again, please get boneless–even if it costs extra). Tuna is okay, but it is too high in mercury for me to eat it at the frequency I prefer (you should limit tuna to 1-2 servings per month, particularly if you are a woman of childbearing age). Salmon is high in omega-3s and lower in mercury than tuna. I eat canned fish 2-3 times per week.
  • Basic spices When I first discovered cooking I went to the seasoning aisle of my grocery store and bought every spice and herb I had ever heard of. This was a mistake. I have since learned that most of the ones I bought are much better fresh (e.g. parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme). But there are a few spices I still use a lot. I always keep Saigon cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, coriander, cumin (seeds and powder), ground ginger, garlic salt and chili powder in the house. I recently got a spice grinder, so sometimes I grind my own. But these are spices that are good to have around.
  • Natural nut butter Almond butter on good bread is one of my favorite quick, filling midday snacks. It is high in calories, but very effective at curbing the appetite. I always keep an unopened jar in my pantry. If you buy the natural kind (which you should), refrigerate after opening.
  • Pasta I know it sounds sacrilegious, but I do keep pasta in my pantry because sometimes it is just the easiest option. A healthy-ish choice is Japanese soba noodles that are made from buckwheat rather than semolina. I do not have pasta very often, so I do not worry too much if I eat it occasionally.
  • Plastic wrap and zipper bags I know these aren’t food, but I consider them essential items that need to be stocked regularly. I also happen to keep mine in the pantry. Don’t forget to buy them!

Once you have these basic ingredients you are ready to start cooking for yourself. In future posts for the How To Get Started Eating Healthy series I will discuss items you need to regularly stock in your refrigerator and freezer. I will also explain how to shop seasonally and outline a few basic cooking techniques you can use to cook almost anything.

Please do not consider this list exhaustive. This is simply a blueprint for how to get started stocking your pantry to cook healthy food.

Subscribe now to get more free healthy eating tips delivered to your inbox.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,