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.”


Cleavers, traditional anti-spasmodic, lymphatic tonic and diuretic

We need to rethink our attitude to weeds. Wild greens are high in phytonutrients, the chemical compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories in human health. Many are deep-rooted and bring minerals and micronutrients into their leaves and flowers. Their dark berries and medicinal properties offer a compendium of nutritional or healing benefits cast aside with the advent of industrial agriculture and profit-oriented pharmaceuticals. Cretan cuisine, on which the Mediterranean Diet was modeled, features freshly gathered wild greens, which may have as much to do with the heart-protective effect of the diet as the olive oil, fresh produce and seafood. Having once experienced a wild greens forage in Crete, I was charmed to have the chance to experience an urban Victoria version.

Gather Victoria is the clever and creative partnership of two aspiring herbalists, Jennifer Aikman and Danielle Prohom Olson, whose mission is to share what they know about the wild edibles growing on our doorstep. To this end they offer periodic tours and tastings in Victoria.

So, last weekend, in the company of a dozen or so like-minded others, I braved a chilly damp afternoon picking weeds from lawns and alleyways.

We started off with the easiest to identify – dandelion. Its leaves, in spring, before the flower buds, make excellent salad greens. Its roots, peeled and roasted, are a well known coffee substitute. But also, as Jennifer observed, the roasted root can add a boost to baking (we had dandelion-enhanced brownies later), and bitter leaves – added to smoothies or stir fries? – are helpful for the liver (stimulating bile production). She takes a daily tincture of dandelion root to this end. Danielle showed us cat’s ear, commonly confused with dandelion. Its (young) leaves are also edible, though a bit hairy, in salads, stir-fries or pesto, and its flower buds make good capers. The root can also be roasted.

JenniferDigsDandelionRoot JenniferDandelionLeaf DaniellewithCatsEar


We moved on to violets – like dandelion, introduced by colonists and now running rampant. Their flowers are versatile: handsome additions to salads that can also be crystallized into candies, infused and made into jellies and syrups. The mucilaginous leaves too can be cooked or added to salads. Yarrow, frequently confused with wild carrot, can be identified by its white (or pink) flower. Its leaves have many medicinal properties and as an herb it pairs well with meat and soups. German chamomile is well known as a tea (dried flowers and leaves); its leaves can be used in salads, and its flower centres pickled.

VioletFlowerbud Yarrow GermanChamomile




Mallow (Malva parviflora, “cheeseweed”) root can be infused as a remedy for joint pain; its greens are edible and somewhat mucilaginous, ideal for holding together veggie burgers. The fruiting heads (“cheese wheels“) are crisp and slightly gummy pea-like morsels. Mahonia (Oregon grape) has tart, edible yellow flowers and very tart blue-black fruit, which makes excellent jellies and syrups. We found an ornamental variety in full bloom; Mahonia Nervosa (wild variety) root has valuable medicinal properties.

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Plantain is known by First Nations people as “White man’s footsteps” so merrily has it spread in the wake of colonists. Its leaves can serve as a spinach substitute or salad green, and the plant has an ancient history as a medicinal cure-all. We all know holly berries are toxic (a powerful purgative, in fact) but its leaves make a fine, astringent tea. Jennifer chops the leaves and steeps them overnight. Nettles are probably one of the best known wild foods, a popular tea, boasting its own springtime festivals, pesto and soup recipes. Jennifer recommends harvesting only the top buds, preferably in the spring, and never when the plant is going to seed; at that point, harvest the seeds which are adaptogens, and high in protein. PlantainLeaves   JenniferHollyNettleTopCalendulaBackground


Chickweed is a fairly well known salad green, a little like a particularly flavoursome baby spinach; and Miner’s Lettuce seems to change its shape later in the season – lilypad shaped over the summer, surrounding its tiny white flower, it looks simply heart-shaped in fall. It’s been adopted by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste as one of Canada’s defining regional foods, so you are likely to find it on the menus of locavore restaurants. White clover, a legume which benefits our lawns by fixing nitrogen, is an edible flower which can be dried and ground into a high-protein pea flour with, yes, medicinal properties.




Curly or yellow dock seed is another source of flour: this wild buckwheat can be ground, chaff and seeds; its leaves used as pot herbs in soups and stews. The leaves do contain oxalic acid so should be consumed raw in limited quantities for those prone to calcium oxalate kidney stones, but cooking renders them a bit safer in this regard.

DanielleTwoKindsDockLeavesDanielleDockSeed DockSeed

There was more, much more: daisy buds can be pickled for capers; milk thistle, shorn of spines, can be cooked as a green or used in soups and stews, its seeds a long-valued liver treatment; grand fir, its flavour like grapefruit, makes a tea or custard flavouring; elderberries, most famous for wine, make an excellent syrup to ward off colds, their flowers made into cordials; borage flowers can be candied, and leaves dried for tea; licorice fern root-infused honey can be used for coughs and the root dried for candy; sumac buds, soaked overnight make ‘sumac lemonade’; shepherd’s purse is a delicious salad or cooked green; and Hawthorn, which can be used (without seeds) as a tincture for cardiovascular health and blood pressure regulation, and as a fruit for jams and ketchups.

GrandFir BlackElderberry Borage LicoriceFernRoot  LambsQuarters






And at last we headed indoors, out of the chill, to warm ourselves on herbal teas and a magnificent spread of wild comestibles. My particular favourites were the hung cheeses (made from strained Greek Yogurt and flavoured with wild herbs) on fennel crackers with black hawthorn ketchup. An excellent afternoon’s work, and I’m much looking forward to the next gathering.

WildFoodSpread WildCrumbCakeHungCheese WildCondiments

Back, with blueberries

2015Sep30BlueberryCheesecake Summer was insanely busy, and now it’s all but over. I’ve got a freezer full of berries, and a visitor with a birthday, so I thought I’d make a welcome raw blueberry cheesecake.

An excellent recipe, tried and true: gluten– and dairy-free and just as delicious as the more conventional counterpart. Perhaps more so, as it’s light and fresh-tasting. Not difficult, just a slog getting all the ingredients pureed to the right consistency.

I’ve made this several times and can’t think of a nicer and more impressive dinner party dessert which is safe for those with allergies (aside from nut allergies of course) and gluten/dairy intolerances. A celiac I made it for once declared it an excellent breakfast (she took the leftovers home) and said how grateful she was to be served a real dessert, as she’s usually fobbed off with sorbet or fruit.

Speaking of gluten intolerance, I was interested to read this article, which discusses  Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a condition that responds well to a gluten-free diet, and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). The article suggests that people with NCGS may in fact have diagnosed themselves with IBS, and are self-treating by avoiding gluten. (This study, somewhat similarly, suggests that a diagnosis of IBS may prevent prompt and necessary treatment for gluten sensitivity.) All food for thought and further research. Meanwhile, let us eat (cheeseless) cheesecake!

Got cucumbers? Here’s a cold summer soup…

I think one can eat only so many cucumber salads before starting to dream of other tastes. Here’s a lovely recipe, based on the Spanish summer soup Ajo Blanco, which is normally made without cucumbers and garnished with white-ish fruit such as grapes or melon. In this version, though, cucumber adds a refreshing tang – and ample vitamin A (as long as you don’t peel). Very quick to make, and you can whip it up the night before.

Zucchini season

My zucchini plants may be struggling, but more successful growers are experiencing their usual summer squash glut. Here’s one of my favourite ways to use them.