Why you should ignore the Superfood craze.

superfood denial

I don’t know when or how it happened, but at some point I started to hear this strange new term thrown around to describe certain foods: Superfoods.  At first it was made sense, like blueberries.  Kale.  Wheat grass.  Then more obscure and expensive foods like raw cocoa and goji berries.  Then salmon and chia seeds joined this exclusive little fraternity of conceited foods that just thought they were better than everyone.

Each of these Superfoods claimed to have above average nutrient density and even the ability to cure diseases like cancer (was that you, green tea?).  Smoothie bars began carrying bee pollen, hemp protein and a berry I still haven’t heard anyone pronounce correctly, acai.

Turns out, the moniker “superfoods” is just a clever marketing term attached to foods that companies really want to sell.  There are no specific requirements or guidelines for being called a Superfood.  Other than it, apparently has to be obscure, hard to pronounce, and prohibitively expensive.

You might be surprised I don’t endorse superfoods.  I am a self-described health food freak and I eat a mostly raw vegan diet.  I should be all over this craze.  So why do I recommend you take a pass on the whole Superfood craze?

Actually, I believe in superfoods, just not the ones being heavily marketed to consumers.  I don’t believe there is any one food that cures cancer, lowers your blood pressure, cures cardiovascular disease or makes you completely irresistible to anyone.

I look at food from more of a big picture perspective.   All whole, unprocessed, organic fruits and leafy green vegetables are superfoods.  I don’t choose specific foods based on their ability to fight disease or really even their nutrient density.

I choose foods based on their taste as well as their natural, unprocessed state.  I eat a lot of food low in caloric density that just so happen to be high in nutrients.  I then assume that by eating this way, my body will get all the nutrients it needs from my food.  Naive?  Perhaps.  Crazy?  Not really.

I don’t take probiotics.  I don’t supplement with protein powder.  I don’t worry about fatty acids or whether or not my zinc levels are where they need to be.  I don’t obsess about nutrients.   I just eat plants.

Sure, there are foods that contain more nutrients and should be a part of your diet.  However, eating a simple, plant-based diet of whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables will have you getting all the superfoods you will ever need.

EatPlantsLiveWell!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caloric density and how you can master it to change your life.

portion sizes

Two words can completely change the way you think about food, weight loss and your health. Caloric density. Wait, wait. I know you have the attention of a six year old on Halloween, but hear me out on this. Sure, it doesn’t have the appeal of a celebrity like Suzanne Somers or the promise of six-pack abs in only five minutes, but caloric density is a game changer when it comes to nutrition and weight loss.

Caloric density refers to the amount of calories in a particular food. High caloric density foods like nuts, seeds, butter and chocolate chip cookies are anywhere from 2,140 to 4,000 calories per lb, while at the low end of the spectrum are foods like lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries at 60 to 420 calories per lb.

Eating low caloric density

Approaching healthy eating and/or weight loss by eating according to caloric density means you consume the majority of your calories from the very low and moderate caloric density categories, and few, if any, from the high density categories.

Jeff Novick, R.D., discusses the benefits of eating by caloric density and also provided this handy scale with some common foods:

jeff novick caloric density

Notice oils come in at a whopping 4,000 calories per lb. Of course, you’re not eating a pound of olive oil. However, studies have show we eat about the same amount of food every day, by weight. So filling up on high water content, low calorie foods like fruits and vegetables, beans and potatoes, and foregoing the oils, nuts and seeds will allow you to eat more without taking in excess calories.

Calorie counting or portion control isn’t necessary if you’re eating in the 300 calories per lb categories, and all the way up to 800 calories per lb. with the beans, peas and cooked lentils. You can eat large quantities of these delicious foods because they are so low in calories. Though you don’t want to overeat on any food, you can certainly eat until you’re satisfied and not worry about limiting your consumption with these low calorie foods.

If you choose to eat breads, crackers, cheese and other highly processed foods, you don’t have the freedom to eat large quantities or even until you’re satisfied. You will have to concern yourself with calories and controlling portions.   Eating until you’re full on these foods quickly leads to weight gain and frustration.

A friend recently lamented during a trail run about her weight gain, despite increasing her running miles. When I asked about her diet, she said nothing had changed, but then admitted her favorite post-run snack lately was dates with feta cheese. Yikes! Dried fruit and cheese are two of the most calorically dense foods she could be eating. One ounce of feta cheese is 75 calories, and one single date is 67 calories.

Nutrient density

Another huge bonus to eating low calorically dense foods is those are exactly the foods that have the highest amount of nutrient density. It makes sense, of course, since in many instances, the higher we get calorically, the more processing is involved in the food. The more processing involved, the more nutrients are removed and the more added salt, sugar and fat.

For example, let’s look at a potato. This food is fairly low in calories and high in nutrients in it’s whole food form. But if we take that same potato and create a Lay’s potato chip, we’ve removed many of the nutrients and added copious amounts of salt and fat. What started as a low calorie, high nutrient food became a high calorie, low nutrient food-like substance. Not a great trade off.

Satiation signals

A clean, well functioning body has natural satiation signals. When you’re eating low caloric density foods, they are typically high in water content and have been minimally processed. This means your body, which is naturally designed to help you not overeat, can recognize these foods. It will do as it is designed to do and let your brain know when it’s full and to stop eating.

Unfortunately, when eating high caloric density foods, these are typically also highly processed foods and low in water content. Your body doesn’t recognize the food-like substances that most Americans eat today. While it can easily identify foods like oranges and papaya, it doesn’t do so well with a ridiculously high calorie food like an Oreo cookie or pretzels. So it doesn’t give those same satiation signals saying “we’re full! stop eating!” until it’s too late and you’ve inhaled an entire box of Chips Ahoy.

Have you ever sat down and accidentally ate too many apples? An entire watermelon? But overeating ice cream and french fries happens for many people every time they eat those foods. Isn’t that why it’s so funny to look at portion sizes on packaged foods? Has anyone ever eaten a “portion” of Doritos? I’m pretty sure that’s 2 tortilla chips.

Eating low calorically dense foods allows your body to do what it was designed to do and give you a signal that you’ve eaten enough. You won’t need to meticulously count calories or to stop eating before you feel satisfied. Given the right foods, your body will function as it was intended and assist you in eating enough calories to function healthfully but not so many that you gain weight.

An excellent resource for learning more about why eating our modern day, highly processed foods should be avoided is The Pleasure Trap by Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer. You can also access Dr. Lisle’s enlightening Ted Talk here.

If you’re struggling to lose weight…

Take a look at what you eat in a day.  Not at the total calories, but where the food you eat falls in the calories per pound spectrum. Begin eliminating the high calorie foods from your diet, like nuts and seeds, oil and of course, dairy and meat. Replace those foods with lower calorie/high nutrient foods.

While nuts, seeds and avocados do have their place in a healthy diet, even too much of them will add up to excess calories and be stored on your body as fat.

If there are foods you have trouble limiting, avoid them altogether. I have a hard time limiting nuts and seeds to a portion size of one ounce. I mean really, what’s the point, right? So I try and avoid having those foods in my house and only occasionally have them as a treat.

Eat almost exclusively from the 60-800 calories per lb category. Eat simple meals of salads, whole fruits, beans, potatoes and rice. Avoid added oils, salt, sugar and fat. Of course this means cooking and eating at home, as most restaurants can’t or won’t be able to remove all of those items from the menu selections.

Embrace this lifestyle.

This isn’t a quick-fix approach to weight loss or health. This is a long term lifestyle that should be pleasurable and satisfying, not horribly difficult and depriving. It will take time to give up any calorically dense foods you enjoyed in the past, but the longer you eat fruits, veggies, beans and rice  the faster those cravings will go away.  If you get off track, get back on as quickly as you can.  You have time.  Remember, this is a lifestyle1

Try new fruits and veggies, experiment with recipes.  Have fun!

Good luck!

Now go EatPlantsLiveWell!

The myth of humanely raised meat.

humane meat cartoonAs a long time vegan, I get a kick out of hearing people justify their meat consumption. Believe me, I’ve heard it all.  One that drives me a bit crazy that I hear much more often now are those that proudly claim they only buy and consume humanely raised/free-range/cage-free/grass-fed/natural blah blah blah meat, eggs or dairy.

My first instinct is to scream “but you know they still endure unimaginable cruelty their whole lives AND die in the end, right?” to these well-intentioned but still ridiculous people.  Usually I don’t go with that though, since people tend to not like being screamed at and I also don’t like making people uncomfortable.  Thanks goodness for blogs, where I can make fun of these people in a relatively anonymous way.

Let’s unpack what these terms actually mean. Are they a legitimate way to lessen the suffering of factory farmed animals, or are they just a clever marketing scheme that means nothing much different for the animals while you pay two dollars more a pound for your steak?

But wait.  The problem with unpacking the terms described above is that there really aren’t consistent rules governing the use of such terms, aside from the organic one.  Nor is any governing agency really actively investigating whether companies using these labels are actually doing it.  Also, truth be told, I don’t think it really matters.  You know what would be so much better?  How about if everyone stopped consuming meat and dairy?

Surely you’ve logged on to a computer in the last century, or gone on Twitter or Facebook and seen the devastating conditions under which the meat you choose to eat arrives on your plate. Surely you know all those cows, pigs and chickens aren’t living on some iconoclastic 19th century farm with a red and white barn and an overall-clad farmer that gets up at the crack of dawn to feed and water them by hand? Care to see some images of what a modern day CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) looks like? Not exactly idyllic.

All the great sounding labels like free-range, cage-free and humanely raised sound wonderful until you remember what ultimately happens to all the animals raised for food in this country. The satirical and brilliant newspaper The Onion kind of nailed it with the title of this article:

We raise all our beef humanely on open pasture and then we hang them upside down and slash their throats.- The Onion

If the above makes you uncomfortable and if you can’t make it through the Meet your Meat video from PETA, then maybe it’s a good time to learn more about meat and dairy alternatives.  You might be pleasantly surprised at how good vegan food tastes and after 30 days or so of not eating animal products, you’ll likely find yourself not needing them at all anymore.

Bottom line, humane slaughter or other such similar designations ignore the fact that we artificially breed and create these animals and pump them full of antibiotics for the sole intention of killing them in their infancy and profiting from the sale of their carcass. None of that sounds humane, not by a long stretch. While giving the animal a bigger cage or letting them out into the sunlight for an hour a day is certainly an improvement, can’t we do better that that?

What it really comes down to is taste. We know that no one has to eat animal products to survive. There are plenty of vegans alive and thriving today that disprove that theory. All essential vitamins and nutrients can be obtained from eating a whole foods, plant-based diet.  We’ve known this for at least 30 years now.

So if we know eating meat isn’t done out of necessity, then it’s clear people do it because they enjoy the taste of meat. All of that suffering, with over 60 billion land animals killed for food in a year, just because you enjoy the taste of something?

This is particularly troubling, given the recent advancement in not only meat substitutes from companies like Beyond Meat, but in the increased availability of vegan food everywhere.  More and better options abound for those wanting the taste of both meat and dairy without the added cholesterol, antibiotics and, yes, the global impact and ultimately, the suffering endured by billions of animals raised and killed for…tastebuds.

It’s probably unrealistic to ask people to give up meat and dairy.  Maybe it’s naive to think we could put an end to animal suffering by making people watch slaughterhouse footage.

But don’t hide behind some sticker on your weekly purchase of ground beef making an obscure and somewhat silly statement that the cow may have been treated slightly less terrible on its way to being killed at the local slaughterhouse.

What really benefits animals and ends cruelty is not buying products that require the slaughter of an innocent animal.  Ultimately, this is the only truly humane choice you can make.

EatPlantsLiveWell!

The hardest part about being a healthy vegan.

dog covering ears

Believe it or not, the hardest part about being a healthy vegan isn’t giving up french fries or ice cream.  Oh, if only it were that simple.

The hardest part about being a healthy vegan was aptly demonstrated during my most recent visit to the dentist.

It was right about when the hygienist had pretty much both hands completely sunk in my mouth  as if stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey that she said “scrambled eggs, cottage cheese and turkey bacon.”

This is the breakfast that she fixed her twelve year old daughter that very morning.  I contemplated what these items would look like on a plate as she continued to clean my teeth.

Would the cottage cheese go on top of the scrambled egg? No, surely not.  What 12 year old wants runny cottage cheese on their scrambled eggs?  Why turkey bacon?  It that supposed to be better than pig bacon?  How do you make bacon from a turkey?  Also, this sounds more like what you serve people that don’t have teeth.  Or people in long term care facilities that don’t really know what they’re eating.  Not 12 year olds.

We started the conversation out of polite small talk.  I had asked about her daughter.  While rattling off her summer activities, Stephanie (the hygienist) said that while her daughter wasn’t “fat” that she needed to watch what she ate very closely.  Which kind of made it sound like she was sort of fat but didn’t want to call her fat.  Understandable.  That’s probably not good for kids.  Full disclosure..I don’t have kids so I’m not totally sure, but describing your child as fat probably isn’t going to win any Parent of the Year awards.

So, she said, I have to be really careful about what I feed her.  Apparently, being “careful” about what she feeds her daughter means a ton of cholesterol and fat-laden animal secretions.  Aargh! said the vegan in the room.

But, she said, as if the breakfast of Every Single Unhealthy Animal Product Ever Invented wasn’t enough for me  “I’m not sure she’s getting enough protein.”

I tried hard not to bite down on her fingers.  WTF?

I’m not sure she’s getting enough protein?

Of course, the hygienist had no idea the teeth she was cleaning belonged to a vegan, and one that wouldn’t even feed her dog what Stephanie fed her daughter for breakfast that morning.

So here’s where things go a little sideways for me.  First, I don’t want to be the judgy, uptight vegan.  You know, the one that can’t go out in public without making people feel bad about what they’re eating, what they’re wearing and the fact that their everyday decisions directly and indirectly result in the deaths of a gazillion defenseless animals.  Food shaming never feels good, not even to the one doing the shaming.

At the same time, do I think Stephanie is bat shi* crazy for feeding her daughter this way?  Yes, I do.  Do I judge her for not being educated enough to know that she’s making it a thousand times harder for her to lose weight, maintain weight or even have the energy to get up in the morning while her arteries are clogged with cholesterol and fat and that she probably already has signs of heart disease at 12 freakin’ years old?  Yes, I do.  Sorry, I can’t help it.

But at the end of the day, I said nothing to Stephanie about the protein comment.  Aside from the obvious difficulty of having my mouth open and encumbered, I wondered if it would even do any good to correct her.

Is that the best reaction though?   Should I have educated Stephanie about protein and the fact even though food companies and their massive marketing dollars conspire to make us think we need to worry about getting enough, we most assuredly don’t.

Should I have told her the average American takes in 3 times the amount of protein they need, yet we have the highest rates of obesity and heart disease?  Doesn’t seem to be working out so well for us.

Should I have told her that what she should really be concerned about her daughter getting enough of is fiber, and not protein? Should I have told her that 97% of Americans are deficient in fiber?

Should I have told her fiber will not only help her daughter feel full and prevent overeating, it is also prevalent mostly in healthy foods like fruits, veggie, beans and grains?  All foods which are not only low in caloric density but high in satiety.

By far the hardest part about eating a healthy vegan diet  has nothing to do with discipline or giving up foods I used to eat.

The hardest part about being a healthy vegan is watching so many people make horrible food choices that not only undermine their health and compromise their enjoyment of life, but directly result in the destruction of our environment and inexcusable treatment of farm animals.

Hearing a parent struggle to know what to feed their child and be so misguided as to what constitutes a healthy diet is particularly difficult.  Stephanie, despite her lack of understanding about nutrition, has the best intentions for her daughter.  I know that. She is merely a product of both misinformation and intensive marketing by food conglomerates.  As much as I don’t want to admit it, Stephanie represents the average American and their understanding of nutrition.

Will we ever educate the masses to understand the value of a vegan diet?  I certainly hope so.  Though I guess if everyone reacts as I did and never takes the opportunity to open up a dialogue about the protein myth, it will never happen.

So here’s my plan.  My next dental cleaning is in 6 months.  I will have another conversation about food when I return to Stephanie’s chair. Or at least as much of a conversation as I can have with 2 hands in my mouth.  We’ll talk about her daughter and how she’s doing.  I’ll bring with me either a copy of The China Study or Eat to Live.  Or heck, maybe a DVD of Forks Over Knives.  There you go, then they can watch it together.

From there, who knows?  Maybe I’ll answer some questions.  Maybe I’ll offer some tips.  At the very least I’ll have shared some valuable information that may change someone’s life for the better.

Of course I’ll do all of this in a joyful, non-threatening way, because I’m not a pushy, aggressive vegan.  But I also can’t pass up opportunities to share information that could help people make better choices.  For themselves.  For the Animals.  For the environment. 

I think that’s about as much as I can do.

EatPlantsLiveWell!

 

 

 

 

Can you change your taste buds to crave healthy food?

craving bread

I could never give up cheese!  I could never give up bacon! No way I could live without ice cream!

The common theme running through these objections to going vegan is the idea that tastes cannot change.  That craving unhealthy food is just something you have to live with.  To change your taste buds is impossible.

I’m here to tell you tastes can and do change.

Don’t believe me?  It’s true.  I used to be addicted to salt.  In such a way that I carried around a ziplock bag of salt. Just in case.   I doused virtually everything I ate, whether or not I had even tasted it yet.  My husband used to say if I was a deer I would salt my salt lick.

In true addict fashion, I even noticed that I needed to start using more and more in order to “taste” my food.

Then one day, I decided I’d had enough.  Enough with the salt.  I didn’t love the idea that I was addicted to something that probably wasn’t that great for my health.  So I quit.  Heck, how hard could it be to change your taste buds?

I was about to find out that it was pretty freakin’ hard.

Suddenly, food tasted like nothing.   Worse than nothing.  All my favorite foods suddenly had no appeal.  Potatoes without salt?  Rice without salt?  Beans?  I struggled through torturous meals, eyeing the salt shaker and wondering how in the heck I was ever going make it through life without ever tasting food again.

I learned to flavor soups with fresh herbs.  Salads were dressed with lemon, lime and spices instead of salty dressings.  Beans and other canned food had to indicate “no salt added” or it wasn’t an item I would eat.

I had to make most of my own soups and sauces, as many weren’t offered as low or no sodium options.  I became quite skilled at making my favorite soups, like lentil and split pea.

All bread products were pretty much out, on account of their notoriously high salt content.  Nearly all processed or packaged foods were off the list as well.  Label reading became a fun little game where I would think, hey, this should be okay, it looks harmless enough.  Then a quick look at the laundry list of ingredients I couldn’t pronounce and a sodium content 7 times higher than the calories would have me shelving the item dejectedly.

After 3 weeks of feeling despondent and hopeless that it would ever get better, something strange happened.  Food finally started tasting good again.  Not just good, but really good.  As in, I could actually taste super subtle flavors in salads and soups that I had missed before.  I started trying and appreciating a much wider variety of foods.

Who knew different lettuces actually had different flavors?  That red leaf tasted smooth and buttery while arugula was all pepper and a bit of a bite?  All of these tastes weren’t apparent to me when they were coated in salt or high sodium dressings and sauces.  Now it seemed odd that one even needed to “dress” a salad with high fat, high calorie concoctions loaded with sodium.

Along the way I also acquired a taste not just for low and no salt foods, but a strong preference for foods that I prepared myself.  Restaurant foods and packaged foods couldn’t compare to foods that I cooked or prepared at home.   After changing my taste buds, most restaurant food tasted not just too salty, but just not as good as what I made at home.

Life without some of my favorite foods took about 3 weeks to become tolerable.  Giving up foods like bread as a by product of cutting back on sodium was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

By far the most unexpected benefit from changing my diet is that the more I eat healthier food, the more appealing it becomes.  Indeed, if there was one bit of advice I would give someone trying to conquer food cravings or give up an unhealthy habit, this would be it:

The more healthy food you eat, the more appealing the food becomes.

Conversely, it’s also true that the more unhealthy food you eat, the more appealing that type of food becomes.

In addition to my own experience, there is  science to back up the assertion that taste buds can change.   Studies show that over time, subjects eating healthier food actually begin to prefer that food over the unhealthy choices.

Since we know taste buds can change, the only question that remains is whether or not you’re willing to change?

All I can tell you is that 3 weeks of suffering is most definitely worth a lifetime of health benefits.

EatPlantsLiveWell!