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Intact Grains vs. Whole Grains

by | Nov 29, 2010
Photo by Venex_jpb

Photo by Venex_jpb

If there is a single subject that befuddles the health-conscious eater, it is undoubtedly carbohydrates.

Most of us have seen the impressive results of at least temporarily restricting carbs, but studies examining the long-term effects of carbohydrate restriction are often ambiguous. Also, while some experts argue fervently for a low-carb lifestyle, some nutritionists still warn about the dangers of eating too much fat or protein.

So how do we know what to believe?

A full examination of the science behind carbohydrate metabolism is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and is in fact not entirely understood by the scientific community (for a thorough review of this topic read Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I have reviewed here).

However, there are a few things we do know about carbohydrates that are worth pointing out.

Lesson 1: Refined grains contribute to nearly every chronic disease in modern civilization.

It is universally agreed in the nutrition community that refined, processed carbohydrates are the worst things to eat on the entire planet.

And it is impossible to overstate how remarkable this is.

The nutrition community is one of the most disagreeable bunches in all of science. But across the board–from vegans like Colin Campbell to carnivores like Robert Atkins–not a single one of them considers processed carbs to be nutritionally neutral. They all consider them dangerous.

Without question, refined carbohydrates contribute to poor health.

Lesson 2: Vegetables protect against nearly every chronic disease in modern civilization.

Where things start to get more complicated is with unrefined carbohydrates, and the various iterations of this definition. There is ample evidence that the carbohydrates contained in vegetables are not harmful, and possibly beneficial.

To call these vegetable carbohydrates “fiber” is to oversimplify the science, but suffice to say that vegetables are good for you and contribute to your good health.

This is also generally agreed upon.

Lesson 3: Whole grains are different from intact grains.

Few people will argue against my first two points. But bring up whole grains and you will unleash a fury of controversy. Some people believe whole grains to be the cornerstone of any healthy diet, while others consider them superfluous and possibly detrimental to good health. You can find dozens of PhDs and MDs to back up your claims no matter what camp you align with.

So why is there so much disagreement? What does the science say?

The problem is that nutrition science conducted in free-living humans is virtually impossible to interpret. This is largely because the studies are so difficult to control and people’s behavior and self-reporting are so unreliable. Another problem is that the definition of “whole grains” has been watered down to a point where it is virtually meaningless.

One reason whole grains are hard to identify is because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created a definition that is friendly to food companies, but not to consumers.

The FDA requirements for a manufacturer to use the term “whole grain” on its label (along with the respective health claims) are as follows:

“Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis – should be considered a whole grain food.” (emphasis added by me)

Get it? To be considered “whole,” grains do not actually have to be intact.

Thus food manufacturers create products using this loose definition to their advantage, demolishing grains as normal, then adding back the required ratios of grain parts (germ and bran) to meet the standard.

This is how products like Froot Loops get spiffy health labels claiming they lower heart disease when any unbiased nutrition scientist would agree that, with 41% sugar by weight, Froot Loops almost certainly contribute to heart disease.

On the other hand, there is compelling data that intact whole grains contribute to better health.

Lesson 4: Eating grains is a personal choice, not a nutritional imperative.

The good news is that it is really easy to tell the difference between fake “whole” grains and intact whole grains. If a food actually looks like a grain (i.e., it retains its original form and bran covering), then it is an intact grain. If it looks like a Cheerio, chip, loaf of bread or pasta with a “whole grain” label, then it is a fake whole grain.

People following a primal or paleo diet will argue that this difference is irrelevant and that all grains (and legumes?!) are unnecessary for good health. Personally I disagree, but remain fairly neutral on the personal choice of removing grains from the diet entirely.

Grains do not appear to be necessary for survival (Inuit tribes survive without them), but optimal nutrition may require slightly more effort than would be necessary following a traditional balanced diet.

This is generally how I feel about all healthy, restrictive regimens such as vegetarian, vegan and raw diets. You can make it work for yourself if you are willing to make sacrifices and put in the effort.

However you should be aware that for many people, myself included, cutting whole grains out of your diet completely is extremely difficult and, if you ask me, unnecessarily painful.

Conclusion

When making food choices about grains, the critical question is not whether or not a food is “whole” grain but whether the grain is intact. For this reason, it matters very little if you substitute “whole grain” products for regular refined products such as pasta.

Examples of intact grains are oats, barley, brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa (sort of) and faro. White rice is not a whole grain, and is closer to a refined grain than a whole grain.

For optimal health, processed and refined grains should be eaten very sparingly. Small amounts such as those eaten in traditional cultures can be part of any healthstyle, but including them is a personal choice that will depend on your own goals and preferences.

The irony is that if you are able to remove processed foods from your diet, the way you eat could probably be described as low-carb. But this label really undermines a healthstyle based on real food.

Though I eat relatively few grains compared to most Americans, I cringe when I see the shining example of low-carb living, The Atkins Diet website, with images of fake pancakes and pasta plastered all over it. If that is what low-carb is, I want nothing to do with it.

Processed food is still processed food, whether the carbohydrates have been synthetically removed or not. Stick to eating real food and you’ll never have to worry about carbs.

Do you count your carbohydrates?

Originally published November 25, 2009.

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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?

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Balanced Meals

by | Apr 17, 2009
Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Collards, Carrots and Lentils

Once you have everything you need to cook healthy meals, you are well on your way to a better healthstyle. But first let’s stop and make sure we know what a healthy meal looks like.

(This post is part five of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping and part four is Stock Your Freezer. The recipe pictured is posted here.)

My goal here at Summer Tomato is to help you permanently adopt healthy eating patterns. Why? Because short-term weight loss diets, “cleansing” diets and ignoring your health completely will never do you any good. In contrast, healthy eating habits can add years and in some cases decades of high-quality time to your life.

I am not being sensationalist. The data is very convincing that your eating habits are the most important factor in your long-term health.

For many people the first big step in getting healthy is losing weight, and this means eating better and eating less. But my advice is generally the same (with a few exceptions) if you are not overweight. Healthy eating is the same for everyone–eating for fat loss and eating for health and longevity are the same thing.

How can you permanently eat better?

You cannot expect to let yourself go hungry and stick to that eating plan forever. It is therefore critical that you get the most out of your meals by making sure they have enough nutrients and flavor to keep you satisfied. I would go so far as to say you should love the food you eat and should walk away from it not wanting another bite. With balanced meals and wonderful ingredients, you can feel this way about what you eat.

Your body needs many things to function properly. It runs on complex carbohydrates, vitamins, fats, fibers, minerals, proteins and probably many more things we have not yet discovered. If you follow some trendy diet that encourages you to eliminate one or more of these, your body will feel deprived and ultimately find a way to get what it wants (usually in binge form). So let’s forget the starvation option and instead choose foods that give us all the nutrients we need. What we will reduce (not eliminate) are foods with fewer nutrients, the ones your body can be happy without. These foods will be addressed in a future post.

The best strategy is to give yourself a steady supply of what your body needs throughout the day. Every day. And because scientists have been unable to replicate a healthy diet with a pill, we need to focus on eating food. Real food. The kind that comes from the earth, not from a drive-thru.

The following is a guide to creating a perfect, healthy meal from food. It is only meant to be a blueprint, not a rigid plan. But I feel it is important to spell this out at the beginning because it is so different from how most people eat. I can assure you that it is very doable and more than satisfying. I eat this way, and I can say without hesitation that food is my favorite part of my day.

Eat Your Vegetables

Size Matters

As I alluded to in my post on seasonal shopping, the bulk of your diet must be vegetables if you hope to permanently lose weight and avoid heart disease, diabetes, cancer and dementia. The science is very clear on this point. If you do not like vegetables, I suggest you try and learn to like them. Chances are you have not eaten many high-quality vegetables from your local farmers market or that the ones you have tried were not prepared very well. Keep trying! Explore different recipes. Try different vegetables at high-end restaurants. Go out of your way to find vegetables cooked a way you like.

Here are some tips on learning to love foods you don’t like.

I recommend finding a friend who loves to cook and inviting him or her to explore your local market together–the enthusiasm of a chef at a farmers market can be contagious! You could even volunteer to help make a meal afterward with the fresh ingredients you found. It is amazing how quickly a kitchen becomes demystified when you spend a little time in one. Start with simple recipes. Delicious food does not have to be complicated if you cook with wonderful ingredients.

To reiterate, your first task is to increase your vegetable intake. Aim for about half of your (medium-sized) plate to be covered in vegetables. Make this happen for both lunch and dinner. If for whatever reason your choice of meal makes this difficult, try to get at least some green on your plate. Adding kale or spinach to whatever you’re making is usually pretty easy.

Diversify

You also want to try to get as much diversity as you can in the types of vegetables you eat. If you have seen those obnoxious lists of “superfoods,” you may have started to realize that any fruit or vegetable can be considered super. The fact is that all vegetables have some unique benefit and you maximize your health by eating many kinds of them, not by eating a lot of one kind. I try to mix up my weekly shopping cart to reflect the diversity of the farmers market, and I usually try to buy something I have never eaten before.

One wonderful thing about seasonal shopping at your local farmers market is that vegetables and fruits come and go pretty quickly, so diversity comes with the territory.

Smart Protein

I mentioned above that it is important to feel satisfied by your meals, and protein can go a long way in helping you achieve this. However, there are many misconceptions about protein, particularly regarding how much and what kinds you should eat.

I’ll start by saying that virtually no one in the Western world is protein deficient. It is relatively easy to get the protein your body needs to maintain its muscle mass. I do not recommend counting protein grams unless you are a professional body builder, in which case this probably isn’t the best website for you.

Despite what some people may say, many vegetables and grains contain protein. For instance, a cup of brown rice has 5 grams of protein. A cup of black beans has 15 grams of protein (and 20% of your daily iron). Some will argue that these are not “quality” sources of protein because they are not “complete proteins,” meaning that they are lacking in some essential amino acid. However, this argument is irrelevant if you follow my advice above and enjoy diversity in your diet. Yes, if all your protein comes from brown rice then you may be deficient in lysine, but presumably you are eating more than just brown rice and the rest of your food will easily make up the difference.

Getting all your protein is important, but since it is relatively easy to get I find the biggest value of protein is helping you feel satisfied after a meal. Protein digests more slowly than carbohydrates and can help you feel full longer. From this perspective, it matters very little where your protein comes from.

Personally I try to get my protein from beans, eggs or fish, because they offer more than just protein. Beans are a great source of fiber and iron. Eggs are a perfect size and are rich in vitamins. Fish has wonderful oils that have been shown to protect your heart and brain.

I’m fairly neutral on poultry and red meat in reasonable quantities.

Intact Grains

Despite what disciples of Dr. Atkins may say about carbohydrates (a lot of which I agree with), intact whole grains are essential to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, real whole grains are not very easy to come by in our culture. I have explained before, there is a tremendous difference between an intact whole grain that still looks like a grain and the “whole grains” in Lucky Charms that have been mutilated then reassembled. Real, intact grains digest slowly and are an essential source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and other wonderful things.

Like protein, whole grains should comprise about a quarter of your plate. However, since whole grains are rather difficult to get, I usually choose to make intact grains the bulk of my breakfast, and usually incorporate other grains such as brown rice or quinoa into either lunch or dinner. These will also go a long way to increase the satisfaction you feel from a meal.

Healthy Fats

One of the reasons the low fat diet from the 20th century failed so miserably is that it did not account for the necessity of healthy fats. Oils from plants and fish are critical for protecting against disease. And, like protein and grains, they contribute greatly to how satisfying your meal is.

Because fats have a high caloric density, a little really goes a long way and there is no definitive space on your plate that I allot to them. However, generally I recommend dressing or cooking all your vegetables in minimally processed oil, such as cold-pressed olive oil. I also recommend cooking with nuts (many different kinds, of course) regularly and enjoying avocado and other oily plants frequently.

Fish provide a different kind of oil than plants, and both are important. But if you are eating substantial amounts of fish you should be aware of the dangers of mercury contamination.

Conclusion

Strive to eat a diverse array of fresh vegetables, healthy proteins, intact grains and plant and fish oils as a part of your daily healthstyle, particularly in the meals you have control over. However, this is not something you should approach as all-or-none. Any meal can be made more healthy by adding these ingredients, and it is worth it to work them in if possible.

But most important, be sure that whatever you eat you enjoy. None of this is “diet food” and all of it should make you happy.

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

My goal here at Summer Tomato is to help you permanently adopt healthy eating patterns.
Why? Because short‐term weight loss diets, “cleansing” diets and ignoring your health
completely will never do you any good. In contrast, healthy eating habits can add years and
in some cases decades of high‐quality time to your life.
I am not being sensationalist. The data is very convincing that your eating habits are the
most important factor in your long‐term health.
For many people the first big step in getting healthy is losing weight, and this means eating
better and eating less. But my advice is generally the same (with a few exceptions) if you are
not overweight. Healthy eating is the same for everyone–eating for fat loss and eating for
health and longevity are the same thing.
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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Stock Your Freezer

by | Apr 15, 2009
Rice Balls

Rice Balls

There are many places you can turn when you’re feeling lazy or are too busy to cook a fresh meal, but instead of reaching for the take-out menu I prefer to turn to my freezer. For one thing, even the taqueria directly downstairs from my apartment cannot whip up something as quickly as I can. And their grilled veggie burrito (not to mention the carne asada burrito!) is substantially more expensive than anything I would make–I’m sure you can guess which is healthier too.

(This post is part four of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries and part three is Seasonal Shopping.)

Your freezer is an invaluable resource for storing foods that are best made in large batches. Frozen fruits and vegetables from the grocery store can also come in handy when you are in a pinch. Below is my personal list of freezer essentials, but please add your own in the comments and tell us how you use them:

  • Frozen rice balls The single most essential item in my freezer is my giant bag of frozen brown rice balls. When I first explained the best way to make rice, I mentioned that I prefer to make a large batch and freeze it in individual servings. This is a trick I learned from a former housemate that always cooked traditional Japanese food (thanks Kiyoshi!). He used white rice, but I think this method is even more valuable for whole, intact grains since they are not particularly easy to integrate into your meals unless you make them yourself. Whole grains take quite a while to cook, but if you make a lot and freeze them you only need to cook grains occasionally. In addition to rice, you can also freeze other grains like barley and steel cut oatmeal.
  • Cooked legumes To know me is to know that I love beans and lentils. Legumes are some of the healthiest food you can eat, and are among the best sources of protein on the planet. The only problem is they can take a long time to cook. Lentils cook pretty quickly (~20 minutes), but I like to make beans in large batches in the pressure cooker and freeze the rest in 1-2 tupperware containers that I thaw at my leisure. Lentils can be frozen as well.
  • Green legumes In addition to beans I have cooked myself, I also keep a stock of shelled, frozen soy beans and petite green peas in the freezer. These cook in just a few minutes and are delicious tossed with nuts, garlic and fresh herbs. My recipe needs some serious updating, but if you want an example of what I mean check out my Edamame and Peas Quick Fix.
  • Frozen fruit I always have a few bags of frozen wild organic blueberries for the days I run out of fresh fruit for my cereal. They thaw pretty fast (sometimes I put them in the microwave for 30 seconds) and are pretty tasty. They are great in oatmeal and pancakes as well.
  • Walnuts I keep my walnuts in the freezer to prevent the unstable omega-3 fatty acids from going rancid. Other nuts likely store well in the freezer too but tend to be more stable at room temperature than walnuts, which are particularly high in omega-3s.
  • Soups I love soup and cook it often. If you have ever browsed through James Peterson’s book Splendid Soups, you know why. The problem with soup is there is only one of me and the recipes tend to serve at least 4 people. Unless you want to eat the same thing all week long, freezing your left overs is your best bet. An added bonus is that you end up with a freezer filled with your favorite creations that can be eaten on lazy days.
  • Bread I do not eat bread often, but love to have it in the house just in case. But I never buy regular, sliced grocery store bread that is full of preservatives, dough conditioners and other bizarre ingredients that belong in the lab. Instead, I like to go to my local bakery (Acme or Tartine), get a fresh loaf, cut it up into single servings and freeze it in gallon freezer bags. You would be shocked at how nicely frozen bread reheats in an oven set to 325. Alternatively you can take it out a day early and thaw it in the fridge.
  • Meat Most of you already know that meat stores well in the freezer, but you can also store scraps and bones to make your own stock. Conveniently, you can also freeze your homemade stock.
  • Sauces During the summertime my local markets are practically giving away basil. It is such a wonderful herb, I cannot help making big batches of pesto all season. Leftover sauces can be frozen and taken out in winter when your favorite flavors are harder to find.
  • Spices I have recently started grinding my own spices, but like many things it is easier to do it in large batches. Extra spices store well in sealed containers in the freezer.

Your freezer is a great resource and I encourage you to be creative. It can make healthy eating much easier by giving you quick access to healthy foods, and also spares you from monotony when you cook in large batches.

How else can your freezer help you eat healthy?

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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.

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Should I Buy Whole Grain Pasta?

by | Jan 19, 2009
Pasta

Pasta

Is whole grain pasta really better for you than regular pasta? Recently I featured pasta puttanesca greened up with a little kale in the sauce. When one reader made this recipe at home, he opted to use whole grain pasta instead (I used a regular rigatoni).

But if I care about health so much why didn’t I use whole grain pasta originally?

You probably already know that I health-heartedly support the regular consumption of whole grains. But I also hold that there is a huge difference between intact grains and processed whole grains. So yes, brown rice is better for you than white rice, but pasta is different.

Noodles are made of dough and are therefore processed no matter what. For this reason they will never be a pinnacle of health food, but that does not mean that there can’t be a place for them in your diet. Italians eat pasta almost every day, and most of them are healthier than us. The important thing to think about when you are eating pasta–any pasta–is quantity.

So to answer the question, is whole grain pasta better than regular pasta? Maybe a little. But because I do not eat pasta very often, and because when I do eat pasta I eat a normal (aka small) portion, I always buy what I think will taste the best with meal. And for me, that is usually handmade fresh pasta (the soft refrigerated kind), not the whole grain stuff.

If you do not mind the taste of whole grain pasta, go ahead and buy it. It might be slightly better for you than the other kind. But the impact of whole grain pasta on your overall health is really small, so this is not a question to get hung up on.

Want a healthier Italian meal? Add more vegetables.

What is your opinion on pasta and health?

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Weekday Breakfast: Cereal and Fruit

by | Nov 10, 2008
Healthy Breakfast

Healthy Breakfast

Monday mornings are rough, but skipping breakfast is not an option. Current wisdom recommends you drink a glass of water and eat breakfast within an hour of waking. The quickest, healthiest thing you can have in the morning is a bowl of cold whole grain cereal with fruit.

But buyer beware. Almost all breakfasts cereals these days claim to be “whole grain.” Yet as you can probably deduce on your own, Cocoa Puffs is not a nutritious breakfast. All that sugar negates any benefit of their “whole grain” health claims.

The Truth About Whole Grain Products

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined the requirements that must be met for a manufacturer to use the term “whole grain” on its label (along with the respective health claims):

“Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis – should be considered a whole grain food.” (emphasis added by me)

Understand? To be considered “whole,” grains do not actually have to be intact. Armed with this, manufacturers set to work demolishing grains as normal, then adding back the required ratios of grain parts (germ and bran) to meet the standard. Presto! Magic health in Lucky Charms.

Would you then be surprised if I told you that intact grains are much, much better for you than demolished and reassembled grains?

If you really want the benefits associated with eating whole grains you should be able to see an intact grain in what you are eating; something like an oat, for example. If not, there has definitely been some processing involved, which reduces the whole grain benefits. That being said, processed whole grains are better than purely refined grains (without germ and bran). White sandwich bread is indistinguishable from sugar in my view.

So this is the problem with breakfast, and it is difficult to avoid in cold cereals. Real whole grains are tough and bland, so some demolition and sweetening are almost always necessary for most people to eat them regularly.

Oatmeal is a fantastic choice. Steel cut oats are even better, but they take 45 minutes to cook. When you just want to pour, eat and run you will need a quicker alternative.

My Solution

I first turned to granola. Those grains sure do look intact, right? But take a closer look and you will find granola often contains ungodly amounts of sugar. Though I enjoy granola and occasionally eat it during outdoor activities, I cannot bring myself to eat it every day for breakfast. It is just too sweet and dessert-like for me. You can make your own granola and add less sugar if you have the time. But still.

The good news is there are some products that are whole grain, palatable and not packed with sugar. But making a good breakfast out of them requires a touch of creativity. I have found one company that makes a kind of granola without sugar. Muesli is actually the appropriate term for this kind of cereal. It is regrettably difficult to find, but is available at Whole Foods in a variety of flavors. The company that makes it is called Dorset Cereals out of the UK. It is not cheap, but I only use about 1/4 cup per serving, so a box lasts me several weeks.

Another cereal product I like is the Ezekiel 4:9 brand made by Food for Life. Though these cereals are not exactly intact grains, they are made from many different kinds of sprouted whole grains and are free of flour and other bad stuff. To give you an idea of what they are like, think of Grape Nuts with more flavor.

I wish I could say that these products solved all my problems, but there is also the issue of taste and texture. Both these cereals are very dense, and eating them without any additional sweetness is a little brutal. For this reason I do not eat them alone, but instead mix them with my favorite flake cereal, Nature’s Path Flax Plus.

I also always add fruit. These days I am using pomegranate seeds (see pic), but almost anything will do. I even keep a bag of frozen organic wild blueberries for emergencies. Fruit is sweet, but also very good for you. Hooray, problem solved!!

What is your healthy breakfast?

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