The Universal Solvent

One of the early lessons I learned while studying nutrition has stayed with me, mantra-like: “water is the universal solvent.” To me this speaks volume about the need to keep hydrated. Water is what we are, and what we can’t live without. It feeds our cells and our microbiome, cleanses our digestive tract, dilutes pharmaceuticals and toxins. It keeps our brain and nervous system working, our kidneys functioning and our skin clear and youthful. Without it, we die in a few days.

The old advice about drinking 8 glasses of water a day need not, IMHO, be strictly followed, as long as you drink enough each day to flush most of the colour from your urine. Thirst will guide you to some extent, but like so many other metabolic functions, the thirst response works less and less well as we age. Dehydration is a particular problem for older people, contributing to such issues as kidney failure, bladder infections and dementia.

Drinking too much water (or other liquid) with meals can dilute stomach acid, which is lacking in many of us, so sip lightly while you eat and drink liberally between meals.

A number of years ago, Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe ill-advisedly quoth that proposing that water should be a human right was “an extreme position”. This statement, captured for internet eternity in a food documentary (We Feed the World), can be viewed on Youtube with the rest of his mercenary views on this “important raw material”. “Like any other foodstuff [it] should have a market value” he says, in a public-spirited attempt to ensure that we stupid consumers become aware that water has value.

Given the number of plastic bottles of Nestlé brand water I see strewn about even environmentally-themed conferences, I’d say he’s targeted his audience about right.

Many people buy bottled tap water, though we’ve known for at least a decade that this is exactly what brands like Dasani and Aquafina are. But think a bit deeper before you hand over your cash for any brand. By buying bottled water, you may be contributing to drought and deprivation.

Consider the huge profits the bottled water industry has guaranteed itself by assigning water a market value as we watch companies like Nestlé line their executives’ pockets through the dirt-cheap draining of public water reserves for reselling to gullible consumers. (Admittedly it’s a tough call whether it’s worse to give our dwindling fresh water reserves to bottling companies or to fracking operations.)

Let’s take this day to promise ourselves, if we have access to clean drinking water, to stop buying bottled water, regardless of brand. Celebrate this day by getting yourself a nice glass water bottle and filling it from your tap; or invest in a water filter system to do your own purification.

Whatever you do, set a water glass proudly by your hand and sip regularly between meals. Bon appetit, and happy World Water Day!

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Sweet and loaded

SweetenersArtificial sweeteners are typically off the list of foods recommended by holistic nutritionists for many reasons. Historically these have largely been to do with neurological, metabolic or carcinogenic concerns.

Here’s a new mouse study on Sucralose (trade names Splenda, Zerocal, Sukrana, SucraPlus, Candys, Cukren, Nevella) which says that it probably does cause or contribute to tumour growth. As we have been learning in recent years, gut bacteria in the human microbiome are instrumental in protecting us from pathogens, including carcinogens.

We’re also finding that artificial sweeteners are causing glucose intolerance – meaning they likely play a role in actually causing Type 2 Diabetes. This is due to their role in altering the gut microbiome.  In a troubling irony, artificial sweeteners remain in the dietary recommendations of the Canadian Diabetes Association, declared safe by Health Canada.

Which is one of the problems with the speed of knowledge advancement in science. We’ve only been aware of the importance of the human microbiome for a matter of years, not even decades, so it’s no surprise that public health policy can’t keep up.

But it’s not just our health we’re risking. Some of these sweeteners pass through the human digestive system – which is one way they don’t affect our blood sugar – and end up in our water systems, through the wastewater treatment system, which doesn’t screen them out. This means they’ll also end up in soil and groundwater.

So really. If these synthetic substances are probable carcinogens, cause glucose intolerance, and are harmful to our own gut bacteria, it seems pretty irresponsible to be sharing them with the wild aquatic and bacterial populations in our environments. A failure of holistic thinking, as usual, at work here, as we also don’t know to what extent these substances will work their way through the food chain, or what effects there may be upon the ecosystems affected.

The only viable alternative to artificial sweeteners, so far, is stevia extract, but even here there are cautions. Avoid highly processed, flavoured or alcohol-based versions: go for the purest version you can find. You may even wish to grow it yourself, and dry and grind the leaves.

Potassium – getting enough?

CarrotSelfPortraitSept28Are you getting muscle cramps? Palpitations? Constipated? There are a number of causes for such symptoms, but one of them may be a common and easy-to-fix culprit: potassium deficiency.

Potassium is an essential mineral, and one of the electrolytes upon which our bodies depend to convey electrical messages across our cell membranes. They are essential in muscle and nerve function. Other electrolytes include sodium, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate and hydrogen carbonate. For good health, electrolytes, like so much in our bodies, must be in balance, and the best sources are from food. Deficiencies and excesses are common in these ill-fed times.

Electrolyte imbalances can occur with age, dehydration (from exercise, heat exhaustion or inadequate fluid intake), eating disorders, vomiting and diarrhea, or chronic conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Because of the link to muscle function, heart disease and stroke have a strong association with electrolyte imbalances, and potassium deficiency in particular.

Imbalances in sodium and potassium are the most common in North American diets, where we typically consume more sodium than we need, and too little potassium. Because we rely on our kidneys to filter out excess electrolytes, people with kidney disease or impaired kidney function – such as the elderly, people with high blood pressure and/or diabetes – are at particular risk of imbalances. People on blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors or beta blockers as well as over-the-counter painkillers such as Ibuprofen or Aspirin may have excess potassium, while thiazide diuretics, steroids and laxatives deplete it.

Overall, potassium is needed for proper function of the heart, kidneys, muscles, nerves, and digestive system, and helps to regulate fluid balance, the body’s acid-base balance, bone health, and blood pressure.

It seems few adults reach the RDA of 4700 mg potassium/day. This will be particularly true for those eating diets high in processed foods and low in fresh fruits and vegetables, since processing depletes foods of potassium, and it’s not commonly added to processed foods. Moreover, there’s a gender gap. According to the World Health Organization,

Women consistently have lower levels of potassium intake than men, but both groups commonly consume a level that is below current recommendations.

Getting the balance of all electrolytes right is, as usual, down to eating a balanced, varied diet, and drinking enough water. Supplementation isn’t normally recommended, because you may not know if your kidneys are under-performing, and because of the complicating factors of medications and undiagnosed conditions.

Potassium-rich foods

Most people know that bananas are a good source of potassium (an average of 422 mg for a medium-sized one) but PotatoTeddyeven better sources are potatoes (610 mg for a smallish one) or sweet potatoes (694 mg) – both with skin – or a cup of butternut squash (600 mg). A large raw carrot is around 233 mg, while a cup of avocado has 727 mg.

Fish/animal protein sources are relatively high too: 3 ounces (=84g) of fish such as salmon (528 mg) or halibut (490 mg) or chicken (around 550 mg); a pork loin chop (700 mg) or 6oz rib eye steak (around 600 mg). A cup of plain, full-fat yogurt is 380 mg;

Vegans and vegetarians can depend on protein sources such as beans; pinto (616 mg/cup) are highest (tofu is pretty low, at 121 mg per 100g). 100g of hazelnuts (about 2/3 cup) is 755 mg; same amount of almonds is around 700 mg.

A cup of tomato juice is around 430 mg, half a cup of prunes is about 700 mg, and a large fresh peach is 333 mg. Best of all, you’ll get 500-700 mg from a 100g bar of chocolate (dark – with >72% cocoa solids – has more than milk chocolate, and of course adding nuts will increase the value further!)

Low carb dinner party

2016FebLowCarbStartersSalmon+PateI had a low carb dinner party last weekend as I’m trying out some new recipes to suit people trying to lower their carb and sugar intake. It worked well, despite the nail-biting and ill-advised practice of trying out untried recipes on dinner guests, and I share with you the menu. Which also happens to be gluten-free.

Starters (shown): Almond-rosemary-parmesan crackers (around .25g net carbs/srv); cold-smoked Spring salmon (0g carbs/srv), Daikon radish slices (1g carbs/srv), red peppers (3g/half cup), turkey liver mousse (0.7g/srv). For the mousse, I adapted this beautiful recipe with its parsley and fennel frond gelée. It was very good on both the red pepper and the crackers. The crackers were based on this recipe (but I used whole egg, added some almond meal – unblanched unpeeled almonds – as well as  ground flax and poppyseed to give it a bit more fibre and oomph).

Moving right along, for the main course, we had a sausage, bean and collard casserole (about 17.2 g net sausage-beans-greens-400x400-kalynskitchencarbs/serving), with cauliflower mash (1.6g/srv) and a fennel and blood orange salad (5g/srv). The casserole was based on this slow cooker recipe (but wouldn’t fit in my small cooker, so was baked in a 325f oven for an hour or so). I mashed the cauliflower with butter, sour cream and a dash of whipping cream, plus a pinch of cumin, salt and pepper. There was also a not-very-low-carb-but-very-popular side dish, the highly delicious Squash with Chile Yogurt Cilantro Sauce (20 net carbs/srv) from Ottolenghi’s Plenty More cookbook (the recipe says 4 servings – I’d say more like 8). Which I have been eating all winter for breakfast, lunch or dinner, using butternut and hubbard squash as the base. So high in vitamin A and potassium you can forgive it its sweet more-ishness.

2016FebLowCarbSeedBunsI added almond flour-based seed buns (about 9.3 g net carbs for 1/4 of the recipe) to the table, which was very well received. It didn’t rise as high as the first time I’d made it, no doubt due to the extra seeds and almond meal I’d added to the recipe. I soaked the seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame) overnight to reduce the phytic acid content (I’ll try soaking the almond flour and meal too next time). Doesn’t matter if it’s somewhat flat – it’s very good. (And very expensive to make, with the price of almond flour nowadays!)

The disappointment was the dessert, which was a low-carb Chocolate Souffle Cheesecake (about 8.2 net carbs/srv, made with semisweet baking chocolate). It was dry and crumbly, but edible with whipped cream and toasted walnuts (another gram or so of carbs). Before I give up on it – and how can I with 4 ingredients, no added sugar and all those health benefits? – I’ll try undercooking it in a deeper pan. And will be using a better quality chocolate (at least 70% but ideally, to my taste, more around the 80% cocoa solids).

Carbs, cholesterol and the lipid hypothesis

One of the most entertaining depictions I’ve seen of the whole cholesterol debate, from Fat Head. It explains how the lipid hypothesis (saturated fat = heart disease) gained popularity, and shows how inflammation in arteries causes plaque, not cholesterol. Essential viewing for those being told to cut fat from their diets.


Excellent as this segment is, I found the film as a whole  disappointing. Too much of it is a somewhat clumsy diatribe against Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. It does make good and important point: how did Spurlock manage to consume 5000+ cal/day eating McDonalds? Even eating 3x day super-sized meals (which he ate 9x in the month covered by the film) doesn’t add up to the daily total. A Double Quarter Pounder with cheese is ‘only’ 730 calories (there’s no mention that I could see in either film of the Chicken Selects Premium Breast Strips, which clocks in at 1270 calories, or the Deluxe Breakfast at 1220). Tom Naughton, Fat Head’s film-maker, was unable to access Spurlock’s food log, but suggests that the balance was made up by adding sugary drinks – and in the film Spurlock indeed seems to be carrying two cups with many of his purchases (Chocolate Triple Thick Milkshakes between meals would certainly do it: 1,160 cals each). Which makes sugar the culprit rather than the more photogenic burgers.

Naughton did, it must be said, succeed in losing weight over the course of his film by eating only McDonald’s. That doesn’t make it a recommended diet, but it raises uncomfortable questions, as the film says, for people who blame fast foods – and the people who eat them – for the cultural rise in obesity. It offers a few alternative theories for that trend: the downward change in the US definition of ‘obese’, the percentage rise in the US of populations genetically prone to higher body fat, the increase in sedentary behaviour (this after previously citing Gary Taubes’ finding that exercise – though recommended for all kinds of reasons – does not play a part in weight loss), the higher average age of the population,  the increase in snacking, and the increase in consumption of sugary drinks. And both films rightly point to carbs and sugar as being in excess in fast foods.

 

Seeds of love and superfoods

SeedValentine-1024x1024This is one of the loveliest valentines boxes I’ve seen. What says love more enduringly than a whole garden’s worth of seeds?

I’ve been loving the fruits of my garden this (pre-)spring: the kale, the leeks, the collards, celery, parsley and mustard greens that have overwintered and become sweet and nourishing. I can’t wait for the exquisitely tender spring shoots and flower heads that will soon start branching off those brassicas. All these things that are best eaten straight from the garden, rather than after weeks in containers and warehouses – since storage diminishes the vitamins and enzymes you find in freshly-harvested foods.

Feed myself with leafy greens though I may, I wouldn’t say I’m the most gifted gardener on the planet. (If I were I might not have chosen a house with a north-facing garden encircled by Garry Oak trees!) But I have been blessed with exceptional teachers, friends and neighbours who’ve shared their wisdom, seeds, seedlings and techniques.

One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of seed saving – and seed sharing. Victoria Seedy Saturday is coming up and will be my third such this year. Haliburton Farm held a hugely popular event at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific in mid-January. A week or so later, the Gorge Tillicum Urban Farmers swapped seeds that were mostly locally grown.

Next week, Victoria Seedy Saturday fills the Victoria Conference Centre with seeds, greenery and gardeners. I’ll be one of the speakers, my topic Superfoods – in Your Own Backyard. See you there? Come say hello! I’ll be at the book table afterwards with my book on food security: Digging the City – An Urban Agriculture Manifesto.

Slippery devils

TeflonStripesIn my Eco-Nutrition class for the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, we discuss a lot of different environmental toxins, and their effects upon health and nutrition. These toxins are new to us as a species, and we have not had time to develop immunity to them. They also interact with one another in unpredictable ways. One of these, Teflon, in use for about 70 years, has been widely discussed in the mass media recently.

Nutritionists, chefs and environmentalists have long recommended against the use of Teflon cookware, especially when scratched. Its negative effects are magnified by heating, so cast iron, stainless steel, pyrex and other more stable materials have always been preferred options. Why? Read on.

Teflon, a coating known as polytetrafluoroetheylene (PTFE), is one of the perfluorinated chemicals known as PFCs which have, collectively, been considered dodgy by environmental agencies for years. Known endocrine disruptors which can damage liver and kidney function, suppress immune function and cause developmental disorders in humans and wildlife, PFCs have never been banned. They are present in such diverse locations as cookware, stain-protective sprays, microwave popcorn bag liners, fabrics and fire retardants. They persist in the body, in breast milk, and in food, water, air and soil, and accumulate harmfully in land- and water-based wildlife.

But now Teflon’s chemical component, perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA, PTFE or C8, has received much more scrutiny recently, thanks to a curious and dedicated lawyer who followed the chem-trail for us. New information is surfacing about its role in a host of medical problems: bladder cancer, kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

The problem for 21st century consumers is that Teflon has slipped into every aspect of our lives. It’s made life easier, more convenient in many ways. Its qualities – slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable (though not in all aspects, as we now know), and with an extremely high melting point – are unsurpassed by safer substances. Its harmful effects have been uncovered gradually in the years since its discovery in 1938.

It’s not just found on frying pans (and cooking without it requires skill – in a generation already lacking basic culinary know-how), but also on irons, bicycle chains, eyeglasses, skis, plumbing tape, cooking and industrial tools, ironing board covers, tennis racquets, medical devices, electronics, scissors, fabrics and of course muffin tins. (Tried to find a cookie sheet without nonstick coating lately?) All those items shed the coating over time (think about that worn-out frying pan – where did the coating go?) which we variously eat, breathe and absorb, or which finds its way into air, groundwater and soil.

Some estimate that the C8 already released into our environment will take about 2,000 years to disappear, were we to cease producing and using it now. But at the pointy end, manufacturers are phasing out production voluntarily. The only tool we have to avoid it from environmental sources is to use water filtration systems. I’d say it’s still worth doing a new year review of your cookware to lessen your home exposure thought.

Obesity: So many causes, so few solutions

SugarGood to see The Lancet looking critically at obesity – which will cripple public health systems in the years to come, through its association with diabetes, cancers and other chronic conditions.  Sugar taxes, the article notes, are not the only solution. (Personally I think they’d be a helpful start, given the rampant consumption of needlessly sweetened foods and beverages in the Western world. On the other hand, added sugars are only part of what the body metabolizes as sugar: processed carbohydrates are surely having an equal effect, and are harder for consumers to recognize as problematic.) Clearly dietary, environmental, commercial, metabolic, microbial and lifestyle causes and solutions need urgent study by government funders and health researchers.

The UK report referenced in The Lancet’s article, Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action (October 2015) lays bare a number of relevant issues and is worth a read. But even it ultimately bangs its head on the desk in dismay: no easy solution, it says. “No single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes. This is too serious a problem to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food.”

To put it mildly, as the Lancet does:
“Obesity needs much more serious attention than countries and global health organisations are currently prepared to give.”