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Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

by | Oct 14, 2009

podcastFor busy urbanites, audio resources are priceless. Here I’ve ranked the 10 Food and Health podcasts I can’t live without.

The amount of time I spend each day commuting, doing lab work, shopping, cooking, waiting for people and avoiding pointless conversations would be unbearably painful without my trusty headphones. Now instead of wasting all this time, I use it to learn about my favorite things: food and health.

Podcasts are wonderful audio resources, perfect for keeping up on foodie news and finding inspiration for new culinary adventures. (I’m also addicted to audiobooks from Audible.)

Great podcasts are defined by the personality of their host. Foodies are passionate people and the best hosts effortlessly broadcast their love of everything culinary through a medium that transmits neither taste nor smell. Amazing when you think about it.

These podcasts are truly inspiring and always leave me hungry for more.

ST_symbol_25x25 Tip! Set your iTunes settings to play back at 2x speed to cut your listening time in half. Videos only play at standard speed.

Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

Times listed are at standard play speed

1. KCRW’s Good Food

(1 hour)

KCRW Santa Monica has an amazing weekly podcast exploring all things food. Host Evan Kleiman shares stories and food narratives from around the country, while Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold explores the vibrant LA food scene. I especially like Laura Avery’s Market Report from the Santa Monica farmers market, a glimpse into what ingredients LA chefs are excited about through the seasons.

2. Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

(30 minutes video)

Though we were all devastated by the news of Gourmets closing, it hit me extra hard when I thought we might be losing their brilliant podcast as well. Luckily, Diary of a Foodie is scheduled to stay. If you love to travel and explore international cooking you will be instantly hooked on this utterly brilliant glimpse into native cuisines around the globe. But be warned, this podcast is a video and can make short time of your player’s battery.

3. APM: The Splendid Table

(50 minutes)

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is an enchanting radio personality with a seemingly limitless knowledge and appreciation for food. Some of the most fascinating bits of information come from her answering callers’ questions about interesting dishes they’ve discovered or what to do with a special ingredient.

4. Nutrition Diva

(5-10 minutes)

I have yet to find a nutrition expert on the internet I trust more than Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva. This quick and informative podcast is a fun and convenient supplement to her spectacular Nutrition Data blog.

5. The Restaurant Guys

(40 minutes)

Smart and irreverent, Mark Pascal and Francis Schott, tackle food issues big and small. The New Jersey based radio team has been described as “Car Talk for food.”

6. Munchcast

(30-60 minutes)

Though far from healthy, this junk food based podcast with San Francisco radio personality Cammy Blackstone and geek foodie Leo Laporte is both hilarious and informative, and definitely worth working into your listening schedule. Haven’t you ever wondered who invented the Jello shot?

7. The Minimalist

(3-5 minutes video)

I love Mark Bittman (New York Times) for many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to bridge the gap between culinary decadence and mostly-healthy delicacies. These short videos are perfect mini cooking lessons for urbanites on the go.

8. NPR: Food Podcast

(5-40 minutes)

National Public Radio has a knack for putting together quality radio shows, and NPR Food is no exception. Food stories from around the nation are interesting, informative and inspiring.

9. Epicurious

(3 minutes video)

Guest chefs and mixologists share their quick lessons on how to cook, shop, mix drinks and live like a foodie.

10. NPR: Your Health

(15-30 minutes)

Not exclusively food-related, but filled with useful health news and information.

What food and health podcasts do you love?

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Picky Eaters vs Food Snobs

by | Oct 6, 2009
By _Max-B

By _Max-B

Hopefully I sold you on why it’s better to be an adventurous eater than a picky eater, but that doesn’t mean you should eat everything that’s put in front of you.

In fact, you should always question what you eat and never accept food blindly. Learning how to choose good food is one of the most important skills you need to successfully navigate the nutritional minefield we live in.

But how do you learn to be judiciously discriminating without being annoyingly picky? And how do you avoid stepping over the boundary into food snob territory?

Ultimately you need to determine your personal values and define your own healthstyle. Here I’ve outlined a few guiding principles I use to make these decisions every day.

Food Origins

The first step is developing an appreciation for where your food comes from.

Whole foods vs Processed foods

The first great divide in the modern food world is between whole foods and processed foods. Whole foods are those that have not been substantially changed by industrial processes and still look fairly similar to how they are found in nature. Processed foods are those that have been broken down by commercial methods then reassembled into “edible food-like products,” to quote Michael Pollan from In Defense of Food.

For unknown reasons the act of processing foods strips them of their magical powers (pretty scientific, eh?). We’ve learned from dozens of clinical trials on nutrient supplements that removing molecules from the context of whole foods almost always prevents them from doing their job properly.

Thus it seems that natural foods–as far as our bodies are concerned–are equal to more than the sum of their parts, and it is unlikely we will understand all the science behind this for at least several decades.

Luckily we do not need to know the mechanisms of nutrition to make healthy food choices.

The single most consistent finding in the field of nutrition is that whole foods are better for you than processed foods.

Independent food vs Industrial food

The second great divide is between independent food producers and industrial farming and agriculture. A huge misconception among eaters is that all produce and farm products are created equal. But anyone who has shopped at a farmers market knows this is not true for produce, meat or any other farm product.

Not only does produce grown in (or animals raised on) healthy, fertile soil taste orders of magnitude better than anything grown in depleted industrial soil, but it will also have more nutrients, be better for the environment and create a more healthy food culture.

No matter how you slice it, farm fresh food is better.

I will even  make the case that the distinction between independent and industrial food is more important than the difference between organic and conventional. While I support organics in general (especially compared to conventional industrial ag), some of my favorite farms are not certified organic, yet their growing practices far exceed certification requirements.

I know these farmers personally, and their food speaks for itself.

There is a world of difference between rejecting food for what it is and rejecting food because of its quality. My personal opinion is that any whole food that isn’t grown industrially is probably worth trying and liking.

Culinary Talent

Also important in appreciating valuable food is recognizing culinary talent.

The prospect of experiencing an artist’s work is usually enough to get me to try a food, even if it is not the healthiest thing on earth.

As I explained above I rarely find reason to eat processed foods, and that means pretty much anything made with sugar or flour. Most of the time it just isn’t worth it.

But sometimes it is.

Sometimes pastry chefs, bakers and pizza makers can transform simple ingredients into such amazing creations that you’d be foolish to turn them down. I watch my portions when I eat these foods, but generally think life is too short to miss such opportunities.

But proceed with caution. The quest for superior culinary talent is a slippery slope to food snobbery. You don’t want to be that guy who turns down birthday cake unless it is make by Elizabeth Prueitt. Nobody likes that guy.

But of course, where you draw the line is up to you.

Finding Value

For me the value of food is defined by the quality of the ingredients, the talent of the chef and the nature of the occasion.

The purpose of eating should always be to make your life better in some way: may it bring you good health, sensual pleasure or stronger personal relationships.

I think it’s best when it does all of the above.

What kind of eater are you?

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Farmers Market Update: How To Transport Soft Fruits and Vegetables

by | Aug 9, 2009
Summer Tomatoes

Summer Tomatoes

In my opinion there is no better time of year to go to the farmers market.

With tomatoes, stone fruits, berries and melons all in peak season, I realized this week I have to be more selective about what I buy or I will easily spend too much money and buy more than I can eat.

This brings up two important issues: what to choose and how to get it home.

Over the course of the summer I have been working on perfecting the art of getting soft produce like peaches, berries and tomatoes home from the market in one piece. It turns out plums don’t do well in the same big bag as melons and sweet peppers.

This video includes my quick tips for making sure you get your soft fruits and veggies home safe.

For the past few weeks I’ve focused primarily on buying stone fruit, but today I wanted to try as many melons as I could carry. I’m happy to report that my tomatoes all made it home safe despite the extra load.

Today’s purchases:

  • Charentais melon (Happy Boy Farms)
  • Yellow watermelon (Happy Boy Farms)
  • Italian parsley (Happy Boy Farms)
  • Edible flower salad mix (Happy Boy Farms)
  • Galia melon (The Peach Farm)
  • Heirloom tomato (The Peach Farm)
  • Sunburst squash (The Peach Farm)
  • Heirloom tomatoes (Tomatero Organic Farm)
  • Early girl tomatoes (Tomatero Organic Farm)
  • Cherry tomatoes (Tomatero Organic Farm)
  • Zephyr squash (Tomatero Organic Farm)
  • Eggs (Tomatero Organic Farm)
  • Corn (G&S Farms)
  • Sugar snap peas (Iacopi Farm)
  • Baby artichokes (Iacopi Farm)
  • Poblano peppers (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Sweet Italian peppers (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Mediterranean cucumbers (Happy Quail Farms)
  • Dinosaur kale (Green Gulch Farm)
  • Cippolini onions (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Italian basil (Dirty Girl Produce)
  • Frisee (Star Route Farms)
  • Wild arugula (Star Route Farms)
  • Peach (Balakian Farm)
  • Garlic (Knoll Farm)

Did your tomatoes make it home in one piece?

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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Neighborhood Convenience

by | Jul 13, 2009
Neighborhood Restaurants

Neighborhood Restaurants

I spent a lot of time last week bashing fast food and all other convenience foods in general. And I stand by every word of it. But today I would like to clarify that I have nothing against quick, affordable restaurants. By this I mean your local taco joint or phở spot, which can be the perfect place for a quick bite before the game or to meet up with friends.

(This post is part of the series How To Eat In Restaurants. Part one is Healthy Tips for Real Life (or how I learned to stop worrying and never eat fast food). Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

The distinction between convenient, local mom-and-pop restaurants and multinational fast food chains is huge. For one thing, smaller operations have better access to fresh food and are more likely to use real ingredients. For this reason, the food can taste a hundred times better than anything you could find at Burger King. Of course the food is not guaranteed to be good, but it is certainly possible.

For me, the biggest difference between places like this and fast food is that what you get is actually tasty. A BigMac doesn’t tempt me in the slightest, but a carne asada burrito is pretty hard to resist. These burritos can be large enough to feed a small village for a week though, so how do we know where to draw the line?

I never let food rules interfere with my ability to have a good time (okay, I do occasionally), but there are a few things I try to keep in mind when I’m going to one of my favorite local restaurants to make sure too much damage isn’t done.

Things to remember when eating at neighborhood restaurants

  • Don’t go nuts By its very nature this food is not particularly special. Sure it can be delicious, but we have just defined it as being convenient and affordable, so the fact is you can get it whenever you want. Show a little restraint with your eating and don’t act as if this is your last meal on earth. If it’s that good you can come back and have it again next week.
  • Ordering is half the battle The first minefield you encounter in these places is the menu. In my experience neighborhood restaurants tend to have expansive menus with a zillion options. In many of these places, most of the stuff on the menu tastes pretty good so ordering something a little smaller or a bit healthier is not a big sacrifice. A good decision can save you hundreds of calories and an hour on the treadmill. Keep that in mind when perusing your choices.
  • Seek out extra vegetables Personally I just don’t feel right without having something green on my plate, and I always try to make sure there is a pile of at least something healthy. At some of my favorite Mexican places this can sometimes just mean a side of guacamole, but at least I know I’m doing something good for me. The nice thing about vegetables (and healthy fats) is they contribute to your feeling full and can help your self-control when attempting the next point….
  • Watch the carbs Carbs are usually the biggest problem at places like this. Most small restaurants assume that Americans are expecting giant portions and so they fulfill that expectation by piling on cheap and unimpressive refined grains. Rice, noodles, bread and chips are the biggest offenders. I avoid these by either ordering something vegetable or meat based, asking for substitutions or just not eating this portion of my meal.
  • Remember to substitute I don’t know why this is so easy to forget, but try to remember! Substitutions and special requests can mean the difference between a healthy meal and an “oops” meal. Swap out fries for a salad, lose your white rice for brown (or beans or vegetables) and trade in iceberg lettuce for the spring greens. People often look at my plate with envy when we’ve ordered the same thing but mine shows up filled with vibrant salad instead of a pile of soggy potatoes. Don’t be the one who thinks, “I should have thought of that.”
  • Learn to share Like the idea of having a salad but want to try a couple fries too? How about make a deal with your dining partner to share the two, so you can each enjoy a little salad and a few fries. Another easy way to cut down on calories is to share an appetizer and entrée between two people. This is always more than enough food for me and friend and allows for a small indulgence without completely throwing your health out the window.
  • Don’t clean your plate Again, no matter how it tastes this food is not particularly special. Do not feel obligated to eat it all at one sitting. You can take the rest home or just leave it for the wait staff to haul away. It’s cheap, remember? Eat slow, drink your water, eat what you like and then stop. I know this is different from everything we’ve been taught about the value of food, but your health is far more important than 25 cents worth of rice. It can be a little easier if you take your leftovers to go and offer them to a homeless person. I do this all the time and they seem to really appreciate it.

What are your healthy tips for eating in neighborhood restaurants?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions
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How To Eat Healthy In Restaurants: Healthy Tips For Real Life (series)

by | Jul 8, 2009
Quarter Pounder

Quarter Pounder

In my vow to stay home and eat healthy for the rest of the week, I’ve had a lot of time to think about all the places I’m not eating.

I’m not going out to meet a friend for one of San Francisco’s best burgers, for example. Nor am I going to another friend’s place to drink beer and play Rock Band.

Not today anyway.

I have many guiding principles for health here at Summer Tomato, but for me personally (and based on the emails I get, for many of you as well) the hardest part about upgrading your healthstyle is integrating it with your social life.

How many times have your best intentions to go home and cook a healthy dinner been derailed by an invitation to go out with work buddies or go to the movies? How often are your weekend’s best intentions ruined by birthday dinners and bar hopping?

That’s life. And it can make being healthy really difficult.

I always stress that the best way to combat these special occasions is to automate your health whenever possible. From my perspective, setting up your life so that healthy choices are your default–the path of least resistance–is your only chance at weathering the birthday cakes and holiday BBQs.

But it seems that for many of us these “special” occasions occur a little too frequently. A week rarely goes by that doesn’t offer an excuse to break our routine and indulge in something a little extra. And though this behavior is psychologically healthy and generally a good idea, too many exceptions can start to become the rule.

Not only do we sacrifice our health in these moments of celebration, we also begin chipping away at our good habits and before we know it they are gone.

Too many fun weekends and we give up on buying groceries and going to farmers markets for two, three or four weekends in a row. Then we go out more because we have no food at home (“Gotta eat somethin’!”), skip more workouts and the pounds start climbing back on.

Pretty soon your life is consumed with bad habits again, your jeans stop fitting right and you don’t even know what hit you.

So how do we deal with these events?

For me one important step in breaking this cycle has been to develop a clear understanding of how to navigate restaurants. Not all restaurants serve the same function. Some are simply cheap and convenient, while others are divine dining experiences to be remembered for a lifetime. And there are dozens of choices in between.

Over the next few weeks I will be describing each of the major restaurant categories and how to approach them to balance health and enjoyment. If you have any specific topic or issue you would like me to address in this series please send me an email and let me know.

(To continue following the How To Eat In Restaurants series, be sure to subscribe to Summer Tomato through email or your favorite news reader (RSS)–subscribing is always free of cost and spam.)

Today I will begin by describing the kind of restaurant you should never eat in: fast food chains.

Fast food restaurants are so unhealthy, evil and downright nasty tasting that there is really no good reason to eat in one for the rest of your life.

“Convenience!” They will shout.

But I don’t buy that argument. Wanna know what is inconvenient? Diabetes.

There is always a better option than fast food. If I find myself starving, behind schedule and in an unfamiliar neighborhood I do not consider pulling into a Wendy’s drive-thru and ordering a value meal. Instead I find a grocery store or local café. These places are just as ubiquitous, but instead of poison burgers I can get fresh food at reasonable prices. You’ve already given up on taste for this meal, there is no reason to give up on health too.

If you find yourself regularly eating in restaurants for “convenience” you still have some work to do toward upgrading your healthstyle. I am not in these situations very often because I plan ahead and make sure I always have something to eat.

The Summer Tomato guide can help you get started eating healthy.

The most important thing to remember about eating in restaurants is that you should save your indulgences for moments that are truly special. If you are desperate and just need some calories, eat the healthiest thing you can find. A bag of nuts, a piece of fruit, jerky or even a protein bar is a better option than a Quarter Pounder.

That burger in the photo looked exactly the same after sitting on my counter overnight as it did when I first bought it. Ick.

How often do you use “convenience” as an excuse to eat unhealthy?

Read more How To Eat In Restaurants:

  1. Healthy Tips for Real Life
  2. Neighborhood Convenience
  3. Sit-Down Chains
  4. Healthy Advice From SF Food Critic Michael Bauer
  5. The Truly Special Occasions

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For The Love of Food

by | Jun 12, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

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

We have lots of fantastic articles this week from Lifehacker‘s food week: Eat To Live. Also featured are several healthy shopping guides including ones for fish, seasonal produce and pesticide-free foods.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am also currently accepting guest posts for any healthy eating and exercise tips.

Note: If you have not received any Summer Tomato email updates this week please check your spam folder and mark my email address as “not spam” in your contacts. Please let me know if you have any problems with this adjustment.

For The Love of Food

What great articles did you read or write this week? Leave your links in the comments.

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What’s For Dinner? Ask Your iPhone

by | May 11, 2009


Healthy eating can sometimes seem like a daunting task. You know you should be eating local, seasonal ingredients and lots of vegetables, but how do you know what to get? Once you have it, how do you cook it?

Enter iPhone. I can confidently say that my iPhone has made my life more convenient than any single electronic device since my first laptop. Sure plain cell phones are great, but honestly text messages annoy me more than they improve my quality of life.

An iPhone offers so much more than calls and texts, especially when you delve into the world of applications or “apps.” Apps are third party software programs that can be downloaded to your phone to perform specific (usually awesome) functions. Apps are what set iPhone apart from all other phones. Today I’m going to tell you about two apps in particular–Locavore and Epicurious–that can be used together to help you decide what to do for dinner.

Locavore ($3) is an app that finds all the farmers markets near you along with the produce in season in your area. It does this according to your physical location on earth using the built in iPhone GPS. Isn’t that brilliant? (Yes, I’m totally jealous that I didn’t make this app myself.)

I get questions every week about how to find a good farmers market in a given area. Honestly I had never had an answer much better than “Google it.” With Locavore’s “Markets” feature, you get a list of farmers markets in your area ranked by their distance to you. If you click on the market you want to visit it gives you all the essential information, such as what time of year it runs and its hours of operation. Locavore also allows you to browse by region (U.S. only) or specific food to find seasonal availability.

The farmers market information used by Locavore is from a website called Local Harvest. Even if you do not have an iPhone Local Harvest is a fantastic resource for finding farms, markets and CSAs near you. When you have located the market you would like to go to be sure to check near the bottom of the information paragraph for the last time the site was updated. In my experience farmers are not particularly tech savvy and often forget to update their websites. I always recommend calling before you go, just to confirm the market still exists and hasn’t changed its hours.

In the Locavore app, once you have found your market you can check the “In Season” feature. This will give you a list of items that are supposed to be in season in your area (information gathered from the Natural Resources Defense Council website).

Unfortunately, the list is more an approximation of reality than a true market browse through. I’ve been following my own market on Locavore since I first downloaded the app several weeks ago, and I’d say it is about 90% accurate. Definitely I have seen the list include some items that are not available and I would not expect to be available this time of year in my area (e.g. boysenberries). Also, my market is large and specialized enough that there are always unique finds that the NRDC does not know about.

You can, however, get an idea of items that should be easy to find. To avoid hunting down ingredients that may not be available, be sure to check the pie graph icons to the left of each item. These represent the number of months left until that specific vegetable or fruit goes out of season (again, this is approximate and depends substantially on the weather). If there is less than one month left, you probably shouldn’t plan your entire meal around that one ingredient since there is a good chance it won’t be there. If the pie is full (green), that means you can find the item year round in your area. In general, the Locavore produce list is fairly thorough and accurate and can be used to create a seasonal dinner menu.

One of the coolest features of Locavore is its connection to the recipe website Epicurious. If you find a seasonal ingredient you would like to try but need ideas on how to prepare it, simply click the item and a page will open to show you all the states it is available along with the its Wikipedia listing (in case you aren’t sure exactly what it is) and a link to Epicurious. If you follow the Epicurious link it takes you to a list of recipes using your ingredient. Click the dish that sounds the most delicious and get a complete recipe and shepicurious-appopping list. Use this to make sure you get all the ingredients you need at the market.

Conveniently Epicurious has its own app (free) if you already know the ingredient you want to use and do not need to find a farmers market. You can search by meal, event or specific ingredient, and create shopping lists for your favorite recipes. As you can imagine, I’m particularly fond of the “Healthy Lunches” option. Another bonus is the Epicurious app contains the entire contents of the Big Yellow Cookbook by Gourmet.

Overall Locavore and Epicurious are both fantastic apps for anyone interested in cooking local, seasonal meals. Together they are a powerful resource for finding ingredients and cooking the best seasonal meals possible.

Have you used either the Locavore or Epicurious iPhone apps?

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Fatty Foods Enhance Memory By Same Mechanism As Emotional Learning

by | May 4, 2009
Go Nuts!

Go Nuts!

Have you ever noticed that some of your strongest food memories are of rich, fat laden meals shared with family and friends? According to new research, this may not be a coincidence. A study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that digesting fatty foods enhances memory consolidation using the same neural pathway as emotional learning.

This finding has far reaching implications for cognitive therapies to fight over-eating, but may also suggest new, easy to implement strategies for memory enhancement. Pistachios anyone?

In the study, rats being trained on memory tasks were administered a substance called oleoylethanolamide (OEA) that normally increases in the gut after the ingestion of dietary fat (not carbohydrate or protein). Several days later, the rats given OEA performed better on the tasks than rats that were not, demonstrating enhanced learning.

To determine the neural pathway involved in this effect, the researchers chemically blocked signaling in the region of the brain that receives neural inputs from the gut (solitary nucleus), which abolished the effect of OEA. Next they selectively blocked neural transmission between this region and another region of the brain that has been shown to be critical for emotional learning (amygdala). This also eliminated the memory enhancement effect of OEA, indicating that emotional memory and memory enhancement from fatty food ingestion share the same neural network.

These findings may partially explain the emotional component that is often associated with chronic over-eating, something that frequently involves learned habits triggered by emotional situations.

However, OEA does more than enhance memory. It is also critical in feelings of satiety after a meal (decreasing hunger) and has been implicated in controlling body weight. Is it possible this new information could be harnessed for the power of good?

Low-fat diets have proved to be a colossal failure for both health and weight loss, partially because they encourage over-consumption of starchy (usually refined) carbohydrates. Moreover, vegetable and fish oils are protective against many chronic diseases that plague Western culture. Regularly seeking healthy fats in your diet can help control hunger, promote weight loss and lower risk of disease. But it now seems that healthy fats could also be a useful tool in overcoming emotional eating, a problem more complex than the standard weight gain that comes from 21st century living.

Another interesting corollary of this study is that fat (specifically oleic acid, a healthy fat found predominantly in olive oil and nuts) may enhance learning and memory. Since the benefits of OEA were only evident when it was administered at the time of or immediately after training, the next time you study or prepare for a presentation you might want to have some nuts around to snack on. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans and pistachios are highest in oleic acid.

Are you interested in foods that could provide cognitive enhancement?

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10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

by | Apr 29, 2009
Tapeworm Diet Pills

Tapeworm Diet Pills

Throughout history there has never been a shortage of (bad) diet, health and weight loss advice. Everything under the sun has been called a weight loss cure at some time or another. And now that we are blessed with the amazingness which is the internet, snake oil is more abundant than ever.

So who should you listen to?

Most people I speak to are so cynical about health advice they ignore all of it completely and simply hope they are one of the few blessed with the genetics to withstand decades of smoking, poor diet and/or no exercise. They always point to a great aunt who smoked like a chimney and lived to 95. At least she enjoyed her life, right?

The problem with this approach is that the vast, vast majority of us are not blessed with these genetics (sorry, being related to someone with those genes has very little effect on your own personal chances). Also, even if you have the most resilient body in the world the only way to test it is to do an experiment on yourself: Eat whatever you want and maybe you’ll make it to 60 without a heart attack. Maybe you’ll make it to 80 without colon cancer. Or maybe not.

It is also important to consider that no matter how long you live you can improve the quality of that life by making better decisions about how you treat your body now. And contrary to popular belief, these choices need not sacrifice fun and enjoyment. I for one consider my healthstyle habits–fresh delicious food and regular workouts–the best part of my daily grind. By far. The trick is finding a personal healthstyle that makes your life better, not worse.

But if bad advice is so abundant who should you listen to? Who do I listen to?

As hard as I tried, I could not come up with a way to describe someone who can be trusted for diet advice. I wanted to say “scientists,” but I could think of too many examples (usually involving money) where this simply isn’t true. Instead it is easier to think about who cannot be trusted and why.

10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

  1. USDA Sadly, the government agency that has been given the responsibility of establishing the dietary guidelines for the United States is the Department of Agriculture. As you can tell from its name, the responsibility of this organization is to protect the interests of American agriculture industries. It has a far lesser interest in public health. Dairy and sugar lobbyists are the reason we are told up to 55% of our total calories can come from these sources. Obviously the USDA recommendations were not based on the data that clearly describes these substances as dangerous. Stay away from the bizarre food “pyramid” on their website.
  2. Food companies When KFC tells you their grilled chicken is healthier for you than their fried chicken, do you believe them? How about Yoplait’s yogurt? Companies trying to sell you something are notorious for twisting scientific facts to make you believe their products are healthy. Think twice before you believe them, history tells us it is more likely the opposite is true (remember margarine and fat-free cookies?).
  3. Your mom Although your mother has more interest in your personal health than lobbyists and food companies, she has been subjected to the same deceptive nutrition advertisements as you. A tragic fact of the past 60 years is that our parents grew up learning in school what the USDA wanted them to learn: calcium does a body good, fat = bad health, protein = good health. But these things are not true, no matter how strongly your parents believe them.
  4. Celebrities It is difficult to look at a beautiful person and not believe they are doing something right or know some secret to perfect health. But just like your great aunt, celebrities have many advantages you probably don’t have that make their looks deceptive: genetics, time and money. These people make a living off looking beautiful and have all the resources in the world to achieve it. If they claim to have some secret to health or weight loss, chances are it is not something that will be effective in the long-term for a normal person. Even more likely is that they are being paid to sell you something.
  5. Athletes If you are not a professional athlete or Olympian, chances are you do not have the same metabolism or dietary needs as someone who is. As much as I loved watching Michael Phelps win 8 gold medals, I am not going to start eating like him.
  6. Cardiologists (or any M.D. with no research experience) Cardiologists are highly trained doctors that specialize in disorders of the heart and blood vessels. But while heart disease is strongly tied to diet, cardiologists are not necessarily trained in science or nutrition. I do not wish to take anything away from what these individuals do–most are incredibly talented, skilled professionals. However medical school and residency training focus more on treatment than prevention. Moreover, science (Ph.D.) and medicine (M.D.) are different, and few doctors have the time or training to keep up with and evaluate nutrition science. But some certainly do, and it is worth it to find out who. Another thing to consider is that heart disease is only one chronic disease related to diet. If you are worried at all about cancer, stroke, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease would you ask a cardiologist?
  7. Main stream media We all love a good story and journalists are trained to sell them to us. But very few journalists–even science writers–have more than a bachelors degree in biology or other hard science. This, of course, is less than the doctors I mentioned above. Though journalists are often very intelligent and can do a great job of analyzing the available scientific evidence (Michael Pollan comes to mind), even my beloved New York Times can drop the ball on nutrition science on occasion. When push comes to shove, they are more trained in story telling than scientific analysis.
  8. Personal testimony We are all impressed by the person who lost 200 lbs on the Biggest Loser, and I salute anyone who has ever achieved substantial weight loss. But all diet advice from these people should be taken with a grain of salt. Personal testimony is the ultimate in non-scientific fluff (check out any website selling diet pills). In science a personal testimony is called N=1 and is proof of absolutely nothing. These people may be a great source of moral support, but real evidence and facts have numbers and statistics tied to them.
  9. Natural health “gurus” Cynicism about health, medicine and science frequently cause people to turn to “alternative” solutions that often involve “natural” remedies. I would never suggest that natural solutions might not be the best path to health, but something being “natural” is not a guarantee of any particular benefit. In my experience, advice from natural health “gurus” is often based on poorly designed, poorly controlled studies that do not stand up to rigorous scientific testing. That does not mean these methods will never be proven effective, but keep in mind that most of them never will.
  10. Personal trainers The gym is one of my favorite places in the world, and if I need help with a certain exercise I ask a personal trainer. Most trainers have (hopefully) gone through a (fairly easy) certification program where they learn the basics of body mechanics. They are not scientists and are not trained in nutrition.

I am not suggesting that these people contribute nothing to our conversation about diet. However you should always be skeptical of who you take your advice from, particularly when it comes to your health.

Is there anyone you would trust for diet advice?

Read my answer….

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How To Cook With An Unfamiliar Ingredient

by | Apr 27, 2009

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!

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