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10 Super Bowl Snacks That Aren’t All Bad

by | Jan 21, 2009

As much as I wish it weren’t true I know several people that consider the Super Bowl to be the biggest, most important holiday of the year. For most of us though, the Big Game is just another excuse to party.

The only problem is that at most Super Bowl parties, junk food runs the field.

If you have been following this blog you probably noticed that I am not the biggest fan of diets. But one thing I loathe even more than a regimented diet is diet food.

I mean, low-calorie egg rolls? What’s the point?

So I am not going to tell you to buy baked potato chips, unless of course you actually prefer them to the other kind. I am personally fond of Kettle Chips, but I eat them so rarely that if they are around and I feel like having a few I don’t worry about it. You shouldn’t stress out too much about things you enjoy.

On the other hand, you should clearly avoid putting down several bags of Kettle Chips (or anything else) on Super Bowl Sunday. But there are still a ton of delicious snacks you can enjoy during the game without doing too much damage to your health or physique.

Buy what you like, but try to choose most of your snacks from this healthy list:

  1. Tortilla chips – Despite my previous endorsement of fine potato chips, tortilla chips are probably a better option. They have slightly fewer calories, a little more fiber and, most importantly, have a better fat profile (more polyunsaturated and less saturated fats). These days you don’t have to worry as much about trans fat (hydrogenated oils) as you used to because it has been banned in several states, but it is worth checking the back of the bag to be sure.
  2. Salsa – As far as health goes, salsa is almost a perfect food. Tomatoes, onions, cilantro, limes and chilies are all great for you. Salsa is low in calories, has little to no fat or carbs and makes almost everything taste better. One way to improve store bought salsa is to use it as a base and add your own fresh tomatoes, onions and cilantro. It really makes a big difference.
  3. Guacamole – Although it is high in calories, this avocado-based dip is filled with monounsaturated fats that are both healthy and filling. Make your own to avoid all the extra weird ingredients added to the store bought kind. Just mash up some avocados, squeeze in some lime and season with sea salt and pepper. My secret is to add half a cup or so of the salsa I made—this is a tastier way to enhance the flavor than those mysterious powder mixes. If you finish making it and it is still bland, add more lime and/or salt. A small minced garlic clove can be a nice addition too.
  4. Cut vegetables – I am grossed out by those slimly little bullet-shaped carrots that come in a bag, but real fresh carrot sticks are fantastic. If you can, get your vegetables from the farmers market the day before. This time of year you can find carrots, celery, bell pepper, radishes and daikon. The flavors of market fresh veggies will astound you and elevate this otherwise boring snack food into something divine. What a difference a real vegetable makes!
  5. Nuts – Nuts are one of the easiest, healthiest snack foods out there. It doesn’t even really matter what kind you get, they all have their own benefits. As usual, I recommend going with premium quality if you are going to serve them solo. I am particularly impressed with the value of nuts from Trader Joe’s. They are about half the price of nuts everywhere else and taste even better.
  6. Tacos – If you are serving a meal to your guests then tacos are a great, healthy option. Grilled meats (or veggies) are pretty harmless in taco-sized quantities. Use the small little corn tortillas (keep them warm and soft by wrapping them in a clean towel and leaving them in a low temperature oven) and serve cut up tomatoes, onions, cilantro (pico di gallo) and hot sauce. Authentic Mexican tacos do not have cheese on them, so just skip it. Your friends will love you I promise.
  7. Fruit – Everyone loves a platter of fresh cut fruit. This time of year we have all kinds of citrus and apples to choose from. Kiwis are in season too if you are looking for something more exotic.
  8. Steamed artichoke – Artichokes are bursting with antioxidants, and serving them whole makes for a beautiful snack that a room full of people can enjoy. Cut off the top third of the leaves, trim the remaining pointy leaves with scissors, remove the stem and steam it upside down in a covered pot. After 20 minutes turn it with tongs so the leaves are pointing up. Drizzle with olive oil, Meyer lemon juice, chopped Italian parsley and sea salt, and steam for another 20 minutes or until the leaves are easy to remove. With this much flavor you don’t even need a dip.
  9. Hummus – This Middle Eastern dip is delicious and much healthier for you than your standard Super Bowl party fare. Serve it next to those cut up vegetables. My recipe is here.
  10. Cucumber water – Even if your guests are spending most of the day by the kegerator, it is in everyone’s best interest to stay hydrated. Slice up some cucumbers and add them to a pitcher of water for a simple and impressive refresher.

What are your favorite healthy Super Bowl snack foods?

UPDATE: This article is also available at Synapse.

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Quick Fix: Warm Sausage Salad à la Trader Joe’s

by | Jan 7, 2009

A couple weeks ago I was visiting friends and family down in Southern California (Orange County & Inland Empire) and on the first night found myself without my farmers market, without my Whole Foods and without a decent (or healthy) restaurant for miles and miles and miles. And miles.

The evening was getting late, so the only respectable option on the horizon was my beloved Trader Joe’s. But I have to admit, TJ’s is not exactly my first choice when it comes to produce. While they do have a small produce section with moderate variety, the stuff they carry is always pre-packaged and a little, well, let’s call it *off-fresh*. Not bad or old, but not exactly the pinnacle of freshness either.

I do not mind their bagged salad greens, however. Even at Whole Foods I buy the boxed kind because it always seems a little cleaner than the bulk bin. I don’t mind farmers market dust, but back-of-a-grocery-store-loading-dock dirt? I’ll pass.

So salad it was. I bought their herb salad mix, which has a nice assortment of interesting flavors. Salad is tough in the winter though. For starters, tomatoes are inedible. The Persian cucumbers looked okay, so I bought those and a bag of avocados.

What really takes the meal to the next level though is a sausage, onion, red pepper and mushroom sauté. The heat from the pan wilts your greens, adding a warmness to your fresh green salad. Eureka!

The secret is to use a sweet onion. Trader Joe’s always has several different onion varieties in little bags, so just read the labels and you’ll be fine.

Trader Joe’s also has a fantastic cooked sausage selection and I like them all. This time we went with Cilantro Chicken, but follow your heart when you are picking a flavor for your own salad.

If you are vegetarian you can substitute tofu or just skip the sausage.

A perfect any-season healthy meal in about 15 minutes.

——————–

Warm Sausage Salad à la TJ’s

(serves 2)

Ingredients:

  • 2 Trader Joe’s cooked sausages (any flavor)
  • 1 bag of salad greens
  • 1 small (or 1/2 medium) sweet onion
  • 1 small red bell pepper (optional)
  • 6-8 brown crimini mushrooms
  • 1 small avocado
  • 2 Persian or Japanese (small) cucumbers
  • Good quality olive oil
  • Good quality vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

Slice onion and bell pepper into slivers about 1 inch long. Clean mushrooms and slice into desired thickness. Dice the cucumber and avocado. Cut sausages into thin slices.

Heat olive oil in a large pan on medium-high heat until it swirls easily. Add onions and peppers and cook until translucent, 1-2 minutes.

While the onions and peppers are cooking, empty salad bag into a large bowl add and the cucumber and avocado. In the summer, tomatoes are a nice addition too. Who doesn’t love summer tomatoes?

Dress the greens with olive oil and vinegar (balsamic is my favorite), and season liberally with sea salt and cracked pepper. Toss with tongs and set aside.

Don’t forget to monitor your vegetables while you are tending to your greens.

When ready, add mushrooms to the pan and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Cook until mixture starts to slightly brown then add sausage, making sure the cut ends touch the surface of the pan. Continue to cook until the edges of the sausage start to brown, 4-6 minutes.

Scrape contents of the pan on top of the greens and mix well with tongs. This salad serves well with a chunk of baguette and even a bowl of TJ’s boxed Tomato and Red Pepper soup.

Enjoy!

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Quick Fix: Baby Bok Choy and Tofu

by | Dec 15, 2008

Bok choy with tofu is one of my favorite quick meals of the winter, and few seasoning combinations pack as powerful a punch as soy sauce and garlic.

Bok choy is also known as Chinese cabbage. This succulent cruciferous vegetable thrives during the winter months and is cheap and readily available at almost any market. I like the baby variety because it is easier to adjust the serving size and is simple to cook. If you can’t find baby bok choy you can subsitute regular bok choy and cut it up accordingly.

If you think you do not like tofu, my guess is that you just haven’t had it cooked like it is supposed to be and I urge you to give it another try. Most perceived taste aversions can be overcome with a little effort.

Tofu is not just for vegetarians. I have grown to like it so much that sometimes I get cravings for it. Strange, I know.

One of the wonders of tofu is that it absorbs flavors beautifully, particularly garlic. Moreover, adding garlic to soy sauce is one of the easiest ways to get everyone in the house out of their rooms sniffing the air and asking what heavenly dish you are creating. It smells amazing and tastes even better.

Baby Bok Choy and Tofu

Ingredients:

  • 2-4 stalks baby bok choy
  • tofu
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • Dark soy sauce to taste

Carefully rinse baby bok choy and cut into quarters, longwise. Once it is cut check between the leaves to be sure no remaining dirt is hiding in the stem. If there is rinse again.

Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes. Heat olive oil in a pan and add bok choy cut sides down. Cook for several minutes, then make room for tofu on the bottom of the pan and add tofu. Cook 2 minutes then stir, making sure to cook both faces of the bok choy and tofu.

Once bok choy begins to wilt and become a little translucent, add garlic to the pan in a single layer. Leave for about 30 seconds, then splash soy sauce liberally into the pan. I like to use a good quality dark tamari soy sauce for this dish. Stir and continue to cook.

Allow soy sauce to reduce until it begins to form a glaze on the bok choy and tofu. Turn ingredients once or twice so all sides get coated. Add more soy sauce if necessary.

Remove from heat when bok choy reaches desired tenderness, about 8-10 minutes. Serve on a bed of brown rice.

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Easy Potluck Idea: Homemade Hummus

by | Dec 5, 2008
Hummus

Hummus

 

Last night I went to a potluck and I have to admit, I was dreading it a little.

It’s not that I don’t love my friends or cooking for them, but I have been feeling queasy this week (I contracted some nasty food poisoning on my vacation–that’s what I get for not cooking my own meals!) and have not had much energy for anything, especially food.

But I have a food blog. Not only did I have to bring something, it had to be impressive!

I needed something quick, easy and delicious, made mostly from ingredients I have laying around. Hummus was my answer. Hummus is a Middle Eastern style dip made of chickpeas. Remember all that talk about how easy and delicious homemade beans are in the pressure cooker? Well chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are no exception.

Hummus is a perfect potluck contribution because it is easy to make, easy to transport and exotic enough to be impressive. Also, homemade hummus is way better (tasting, but also for you) than anything you can buy at the store… no offense to Trader Joe’s.

You can make the basic recipe with beans, tahini, garlic and spices, but I have added a couple extra ingredients if you want to take your hummus to the next level.

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • tahini to taste
  • 1 Meyer lemon
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (gourmet paprika or fresh ground sweet chili powder is best)
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or more if you’re feeling spunky – optional)
  • pure olive oil or canola oil
  • good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt to taste
  • preserved lemon (optional)
  • parsley (optional)

I always have tahini in my fridge, but if you do not it is fairly easy to find. Tahini is a paste made out of sesame seeds with a consistency similar to natural peanut butter (the oily kind). It has a delicious smokey flavor and I use it to garnish many different dishes.

Olive oil is a key ingredient in this recipe, but it is important to understand that you cannot put extra virgin olive oil into a blender, or it will turn unpleasantly bitter. Use either pure olive oil or canola oil for blending, then add a good extra virgin olive oil on top as a garnish. Your extra virgin olive oil should have a bright green color, not a dull yellow or brown.

You can use canned beans if you are in a pinch, but I don’t recommend it.

Here’s what to do:

Pick over, rinse and soak the dry chickpeas overnight in excess water (they expand quite a bit). The next day rinse them again, put them in a pressure cooker and cook on high until done (mine works in 12 minutes). Once they are cooked, use a slotted spoon to move chickpeas from the liquid into a large bowl. Reserve the liquid. Throw out any chickpea shells that have separated from the bean.

If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can boil the chickpeas until they are soft, about an hour and a half. Add more water if necessary.

While the beans are cooking place whole, unpeeled garlic cloves into a toaster oven and bake at 400 for 3-5 minutes (I like them less cooked). Let them cool a bit then remove the peel, which should come off easily.

Add the garlic to your beans (mince it if you prefer to add it raw), along with 1/2 cup (or whatever) of the liquid they cooked in, 2 tbsp pure olive oil, 1/2 tsp of salt and lemon juice to taste (I use the whole thing).

Also add 2-3 tbsp of tahini (honestly I eyeball it and keep adding tahini until I’m happy with the taste) and the other spices. I recently purchased some amazing New Mexico chili powder from Tierra Vegetables and a few slices of preserved lemon from Boulette’s Larder that added incredible dimension to this already wonderful recipe. I am particularly impressed with the preserved lemon, which contributed a unique, rich lemon flavor unlike anything I have ever tasted.

David Lebovitz claims that making your own preserved lemons is not very difficult if you want to try. Rinse the lemons before adding them to your recipe, I added 5-6 slices.

Blend the ingredients together using a hand blender. If you do not have a hand blender you can use a regular blender or food processor. They work the same but are harder to clean.

Puree the mix until smooth, adding more liquid if necessary. Once the hummus is creamy, taste it with a clean spoon and adjust the salt, lemon and tahini.

When finished, move hummus to a tupper (for potluck) or serving bowl. Use a spoon to make a crater in the center, garnish with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with paprika and chopped parsley. California extra virgin olive oil is the best choice, in my opinion, and Trader Joe’s has a great one that is affordable. In San Francisco, however, I like to use Stonehouse olive oil. They have a store at the Ferry Building.

Serve with warm pita wedges or bread.

Hummus can be modified in a million different ways. It is fantastic with roasted peppers, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs and different kinds of nuts.

Be creative!

 

What is your favorite hummus recipe?

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How To Cook Dried Beans Using A Pressure Cooker

by | Dec 2, 2008
Squash, Peppers and Beans

Squash, Peppers and Beans Recipe

I am not a vegetarian, but for convenience, financial and health reasons I do not cook a lot of meat. Consequently my dietary protein comes from many different sources, not the least of which is beans.

I realize that many of you have preconceived notions of beans and what goes along with eating them, but I am going to ask you to keep your mind open until I finish my explanation. If you read all the way to the bottom, you are more than welcome to unleash your fury in my comments section.

Let me begin by stating that I am not talking about canned kidney beans. I do not eat beans from a can unless I am desperately short on time. Not that there is anything wrong with canned beans: they are quick, healthy and relatively inexpensive. However, I have found canned beans to be very one dimensional in flavor and even less appealing in texture. They are also more prone to cause the digestive problems many people associate with “the musical fruit.”

Dried Beans

A little over a year ago my apartment acquired a pressure cooker that opened my eyes to the potential of dried beans. Dried beans, which are even less expensive than canned beans, can take hours to cook under normal circumstances. But a pressure cooker can cut this time to under half an hour and allows you to prepare large batches that can be stored frozen for months.

In my estimation, however, the best reasons to cook your own beans are taste, texture and variety. Home cooked beans taste worlds better than canned. First off, they do not have the characteristic slimy ooze of canned beans. (Definitely rinse your beans if you do buy canned). Dried beans also have a richer, more complex flavor without the metallic tinge you get with S&W. (Hint: Your beans will taste even more delicious when cooked in bouillon or broth.)

The mouthfeel of home cooked beans is also superior to canned. Different varietals have unique tastes and textures, so with each bean you try you embark on a new adventure. Some are silky and delicate, others rich and creamy. Larger beans tend to be heartier than smaller beans, but there is really no telling how they will taste until after you cook them.

While there are only five or six kinds of canned beans commonly available, the number of dried beans is innumerable. Rancho Gordo is an heirloom bean vendor I visit regularly at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that has a fantastic variety of dried beans. Ever had a Black Calypso bean? Me neither, but I cannot wait to try them! Visit the Rancho Gordo website if you want to order online.

There are also fantastic bean selections at most health food stores, including Whole Foods. Check the bulk bins for the best deals.

Soaking Beans

One caveat of cooking your own beans is that they require a significant amount of soaking time. I recommended that you rinse them well and soak them overnight. All this requires is 5 minutes of planning the day before, and if you prepare large batches you do not have to soak beans very often. Be sure to pick over your beans for pebbles before cooking them.

Another bonus of rinsing and soaking beans is that it eliminates many of the sugars that your body cannot digest, thereby reducing (in my experience eliminating) unpleasant bodily byproducts. Toss out your soaking water when you are finished and add fresh water or broth for cooking.

Pressure Cooker Precautions

Pressure cookers can be dangerous if used improperly, so it is imperative that you follow the instructions carefully. In general, it is important to get a tight seal on the lid and be sure the pot is not over-filled (total volume should be less than half the volume of the pot). However, it is necessary to add sufficient liquid to the beans to prevent burning and dehydration. You also want to avoid adding salt until after your beans have cooked.

Follow the instructions on your pressure cooker to determine the appropriate amount of cooking time, usually 10-20 minutes. The contents of the pot are under a tremendous amount of pressure while cooking, so be sure to allow the pot to depressurize completely before attempting to remove the lid. This takes an additional 10-15 minutes.

Here is the pressure cooker I use.

I imagine that a slow cooker would be equally advantageous in cooking beans, but I have never tried it.

What are your favorite tricks to make beans more user friendly?

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Quinoa: Did You Know?

by | Nov 17, 2008

Quinoa is a seed plant common to the Andes of South America. Because it is not a grass, quinoa is not technically a cereal grain. For nutritional purposes, however, quinoa is considered a “whole grain” and is a fantastic alternative to rice.

Quinoa is rich in dietary fiber, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. But what makes quinoa stand out nutritionally is its protein content. Unlike most grains, quinoa contains a high percentage of the amino acid lysine, making it a complete protein.

A complete protein is a food that contains all essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein.

If you are vegetarian, acquiring all the necessary amino acids from your diet is more difficult than if you eat meat occasionally, because plant proteins are usually deficient in one amino acid or another. For grains, the missing molecule is usually lysine. Quinoa’s high lysine content makes it a nutritional powerhouse for a grain, whether you are vegetarian or not.

Quinoa can be found at many grocery stores (e.g. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) and frequently comes in a box. At some stores (e.g. Whole Foods) it can also be found in bulk.

Quinoa is much faster to prepare than other whole grains. As the New York Times recommends, I like to prepare it the same way I make rice. But it needs to be monitored more carefully, since it cooks much quicker. 10 minutes boiling should be sufficient.

I have not been able to find the red quinoa shown in the article. Let me know if you find it!

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Turkish Quinoa Pilaf With Chickpeas, Kale and Pomegranate

by | Nov 16, 2008

A couple weeks ago the New York Times health section featured several recipes using quinoa (keen-wah), a small, round ancient seed from Peru that can be used much like a cereal grain.

Because I had all the ingredients on hand, I decided to make this recipe for Quinoa Pilaf With Chickpeas, Pomegranate and Spices. I must admit, while it sounded good I did not expect to like it as much as I did.
I did not have an onion, but I had leeks so I used them instead. This made the recipe faster since leeks only require 1-2 minutes of cooking before additional ingredients are added.
Also, I do not have a spice grinder so I added slightly smaller amounts of already ground spices instead of toasting and grinding them myself. I just eye-balled the amounts using a teaspoon measure.
The recipe says that canned chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are fine, but I prefer to make my own. In my opinion, homemade beans are much better than canned. However, I have the luxury of having a pressure cooker in the house, which reduces cooking time for beans to about 25 minutes (including depressurization). Otherwise beans require at least an hour to cook. They also require several hours of soaking. Since beans are one of my most reliable and affordable protein sources, this process is worth it for me. If you would rather just crack open a can, that is your call.
Finally, I wanted a little more green in my meal so I steamed half a bunch of dinosaur kale. To prepare, I cut it up into bite sized pieces and steamed it for 8-10 minutes. I salted it then added it to the quinoa after I added the chickpeas. I strongly recommend adding kale if you plan to use this recipe as a main course. It was delicious!
Adaptation of New York Times Quinoa with Chickpeas, Pomegranate and Spices (with kale):
  • 1 teaspoon(ish) cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon(ish) coriander
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups cooked quinoa, (1 c. dry)
  • 1 cup cooked chick peas (canned are fine), rinsed
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds

Rinse and chop kale and place in steam basket over shallow water. Cover and steam 8-10 minutes. This step is particularly important for dinosaur kale, which can be very tough. If you are using traditional kale, reduce cooking time accordingly. Cook until tender then sprinkle with sea salt.

Adjust a frying pan to medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and salt, stir together for about half a minute, and stir in the cumin and coriander. Add the remaining olive oil and stir in the quinoa, chick peas, kale and 3 tablespoons of the pomegranate seeds. Stir over medium heat to heat through, several minutes. Taste and adjust salt.
Transfer to a platter or wide bowl and decorate with the remaining pomegranate seeds. You can also mold the pilaf into 1/2-cup ramekins or timbales and unmold onto the plate, then decorate with pomegranate seeds.
Leftover pilaf can be stored in the refrigerator for several days. Picture above was after 3 days, and it was still beautiful. Only the pomegranate seeds started losing color after awhile, but they were still tasty. Reheat 1-2 minutes in the microwave.
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Breakfast Cereal Eaters are Thinner, More Nourished

by | Nov 12, 2008

The case for eating breakfast everyday is mounting. We already know that people who eat breakfast are generally thinner than those who do not. They also tend to eat a healthier diet overall. Now new data suggest that the nutritional quality of your breakfast is also important for your health. Surprise!

A study published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is the first to address how your choice of breakfast is correlated with the quality of food chosen during the rest of the day. The scientists combined dietary data from three continuous National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (1999-2004) to determine energy density, nutritional quality and variety of foods eaten. They also examined the relationship between breakfast choices and body mass index (BMI). A total of 12,316 people were analyzed.

Eighty percent of people in the study reported eating breakfast. Although breakfast eaters ate more total daily calories during the study, the foods they chose tended to be of lower energy density. Lower energy density foods have fewer calories per gram and are usually associated with more nutritious fare such as fruits, vegetables and grains. Examples of higher energy density foods are meats, cheeses and processed carbohydrates.

Interestingly, breakfasts of lower energy density, such as cereal with milk and fruit, were an indication of a more diverse diet throughout the rest of the day. In other words, participants who ate cereal for breakfast were more likely to report eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and other healthful foods overall. This was true whether or not breakfast itself was included in the calculation.

People who chose breakfasts of higher energy density ate fewer different kinds of foods, but more pastries and junk foods. Countless studies have shown that dietary diversity is one of the best predictors of good health. This was confirmed in this study, as higher energy density breakfasts predicted fewer beneficial micronutrients consumed overall.

The researchers also found that seventeen percent of people who ate breakfast reported items that could not be “grouped into the major food groups,” things such as pastries, confections and meal replacement drinks and bars. With this the authors of the study point out that a significant percentage of Americans do not eat “real food” for breakfast (somewhere Michael Pollan is smiling and nodding). Not surprisingly, this group comprised the highest average energy density of any type of breakfast.

Women (but not men) that did not eat breakfast had a higher average BMI. This was true regardless of body image or attempted weight loss. In both men and women, breakfast energy density showed a linear positive association with BMI. This means that even for people who do eat breakfast, if you eat foods with higher energy density you will probably weigh more.

In English, what this all means is that although eating breakfast alone does a body good, it is much better if your breakfast is cereal and fruit rather than eggs and meat.

There is no clear cause and effect in an analysis of this kind, however there seems to be a correlation between eating less healthy foods at breakfast and making poor food choices throughout the day. While it is possible that some people simply make unhealthy selections all the time, there is also a possibility that your breakfast choices affect metabolic and hormonal systems that alter your cravings for different foods over the course of the day. Indeed, there are studies showing that people who eat whole grains in the morning have altered insulin responses for nine to twelve hours after eating.

Even if your breakfast choice does not have a direct impact on the rest of your food selections, choosing cereals and fruit will certainly bring you a step closer to better health. Pouring a bowl of whole grain cereal and adding some fruit is pretty simple, and I guarantee you it is easier than making eggs and sausage. Do yourself a favor and save the cakes and donuts for dessert.

This article can also be found at Synapse.

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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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Quick Fix: Edamame and Peas

by | Aug 6, 2008

We are all in a hurry sometimes. I happened to be in a hurry tonight. I won’t bore you with the details, but I got held up at work today and had more things to do when I got home than I could really fathom (including writing this post). I needed dinner, I needed it to be healthy (I’m going out twice tomorrow and for dinner Friday–wish me luck) and, most important, I needed it to be quick.

What to do?
I can’t stress this enough: stock frozen vegetables.
One of my most reliable dinners is sauteed soy beans (edamame), petite peas, pistachios and basil. To prepare, heat some olive oil in a pan, toss in half a chopped shallot or any mild onion like leeks or Maui (you should always have onion, garlic and some kind of fresh herb in the house–this is what weekends are for) and some kind of nut (these also have a long shelf-life). I prefer the roasted, unsalted pistachio “nut meats” from Trader Joe’s, but you can choose whatever you like or have available (walnuts, cashews and almonds are all delicious).
Let the onion and nuts cook for a few minutes until just starting to brown, add sea or kosher salt, then dump in about 1/2 cup of frozen, shelled soy beans (per person). If you are unfamiliar with soy beans, they look like lima beans only a little smaller (and they taste better). Stir them to cover in oil. Once shimmering, add an appropriate volume of frozen petite peas (petite peas are far sweeter and more delicate than regular peas) and mix. While cooking, crush and chop a clove of garlic. Clear space in the center of the pan and add garlic in a single layer. When garlic becomes fragrant (about 30 seconds), stir contents of pan. Add a handful of whole or chopped basil leaves (or any other herb you have in the house), salt and pepper to taste, and mix another few seconds. Remove from heat when beans and peas are bright green and the herbs have wilted. Do not let brown.
Usually I eat this dish on a bed of (1/4 cup) brown rice. Today I threw in some chopped raddichio (with the basil) and served it on a bed of brown rice and purslane, because I had it. This added depth (and nutrients) to the dish, but is not necessary. Spinach is another nice accompaniment that can be added with the herbs. Please do not over-cook, this shouldn’t take very long.
Whole grains should be prepared in large batches and frozen in individual servings in plastic wrap. To thaw, run under warm (not hot) water for a minute or two until you can remove the plastic, then microwave (covered) for approximately 1 minute.
What is your favorite quick, healthy dinner?
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