diet strategies

Hit Hard with Health

I don’t know how things are going in your corner of the world, but it seems like an unusual number of folks in my corner are going through health struggles: cancer, anxiety and depression, heart issues, brain issues. Now, I know food isn’t a magic bullet. There are plenty of people who can afford to eat healthily and do eat healthily, and still they get one of the above ailments. But eating well certainly doesn’t hurt, while eating poorly actually does hurt.

Open your wallet and spend lots of your free time prepping food, and you too can eat like this. [Photo by  Dan Gold  on  Unsplash   ]

Open your wallet and spend lots of your free time prepping food, and you too can eat like this. [Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash ]

It’s one of the shames of this country that unhealthy processed foods are so danged cheap, and real food can be a bank-breaker. If we all were content with a life-expectancy that hovered around 45, we could eat whatever we wanted (however cheaply) and all just keel over suddenly, like in the good old days.

Living longer means we have to put more expensive fuel in the machine and baby it a little more to keep it running. That is,

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables, whether they be fresh or frozen.

  2. Limit the sugar and 90% of the foods found in the center of the grocery store.

  3. Get off our butts and move around more.

I know, it’s hard. And it doesn’t even guarantee better health. But it does up our chances.

I hate exercise, but at least the rest of my family doesn’t. Some processed foods we cannot do without: breakfast cereals; breads; ice cream; the occasional delights of the snack aisle, like peanut-butter-filled pretzels, crackers, and tortilla chips. We love homemade desserts and eat them frequently. So that means, out of the three Must-Dos for Increased Chances at Good Health, the only one I feel much motivation about is the fruits and vegetables.

The American Cancer Society offers these tips for increasing your produce intake (and I’ve added my own comments after each one):

  • At each meal, fill at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables. (If you’ve got to slather them in dressing or Parmesan cheese, go for it. Better to have the fiber and goodness than to avoid the fats. But, hey, olive oil and cheese are good for you.)

  • Layer lettuce, tomatoes, beans, onions, and other vegetables on sandwiches and wraps. (Substitute hummus for mayo. Leave a pan of sliced onions on the stove for a half-hour to caramelize slowly, if that makes them more appetizing for your family.)

  • Add tomato sauce and extra vegetables to pastas and vegetable soups. (Or even puree some cooked veggies into your sauce. It’ll never be noticed.)

  • Choose a vegetarian dish when eating out. (Tried No Anchor in Seattle the other night, and —oh my goodness— the beetroot “dumplings” were to die for. I only wished they gave me 25% more.)

  • Challenge yourself to try new vegetables from the produce aisle, frozen foods section, or your local farmer’s market. (When’s the last time you made a salad with hearts of palm? When did you last reach for jicama or a sunchoke?)

  • Keep dried fruits in your desk drawer and glove compartment (but watch the sugar content!). (Because of the high sugar content and the sticky tendency to adhere to your teeth and cause tooth decay, I would mix these with nuts.)

  • Keep a bowl full of fresh veggies and fruits on your kitchen counter for quick snacking. (If it’s too much trouble to prep, there are always bananas, apples, easy-peel oranges, sugar snap peas, those little peppers that taste like bell peppers…)

  • If you’re short on time, look for pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables, such as baby carrots and broccoli florets, at the grocery store. (If you must. I confess to avoiding these because I think they’re all old and have lost a lot of nutritional value. Better to spend an hour on the weekend prepping your own veggies and bagging them up.)

We’ve entered the long Marketless season, which means we have fewer enticements to try a new fruit or vegetable or variety, but it can still be done. When in doubt, if it’s a vegetable, I bet it tastes good drizzled in olive oil, sprinkled with fresh-grated Parmesan and roasted until brown. I would eat a shoe, if it were prepared like that, and I’m betting your family would too.

Boot. It’s what’s for dinner.  [Photo by  Mika  on  Unsplash   ]

Boot. It’s what’s for dinner. [Photo by Mika on Unsplash ]

Hot Off the Skillet - April's Food News


Food news in this post:

  • World obesity rates continue to rise.
  • How much of your daily food intake is "ultra-processed"?
  • Droughts aren't all bad.
  • Eat like it's 1939!
  • Want to lose weight? Here's what you should listen to.


Obesity is no longer just an American phenomenon, or even a Western one. The NCD-Risc, a network of health scientists studying risk factors for non-communicable diseases, has found that one in seven women and one in nine men are now obese. Worldwide. The only places remaining with significant numbers of underweight folks are India and Bangladesh. Astonishing figures, so to speak, and ones that show no signs of slowing.

The team predicted if these global trends continue, by 2025 18% of the world’s men and 21% of women will be obese. Furthermore, the probability of reaching the World Health Organization global obesity target (which aims for no rise in obesity above 2010 levels by 2025) will be close to zero.

As obesity has been linked to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and metabolic syndrome, associated worldwide health costs will soar right along with our weight. Their recommendations? Eating more fruits and vegetables (duh), but also possibly "taxing high sugar and highly processed foods." Wouldn't that be an interesting world, if the good stuff was subsidized and the bad stuff taxed? For more details, here's the longer article.

Speaking of processed foods, Mental Floss reports that almost 60% of the typical American diet is "ultra-processed," including goodies like "sodas, packaged snacks and baked goods, candy and desserts, instant noodles and soups, and frozen meat products like chicken and fish nuggets." The percentage seems high, but I'm betting in our house we at least hit 25%, between breakfast cereal, ice cream, and cold cuts. Yikes.

On the upside, when you do get around to eating those expensive fruits and vegetables, consider finding drought-stunted survivors, for their bigger nutritional punch. (This is why my husband under-waters his tomatoes--to increase their flavor and meat density.) Plants that are fighting for survival pack their fruits with antioxidants. Check out this fascinating article on the topic from KQED (a Bay Area station). We've been so fortunate to hit that Ferry Building farmers market in San Francisco on our summer visits, and they do have good stuff.

Before widespread irrigation, the produce might have had more flavor and nutritional value, but that didn't mean we couldn't still find ways to make weird food. The American History Museum of the Smithsonian has been posting about American cooking in various decades, based on cookbooks of each era. Just look at the pictures from the article on the 1930s! The question isn't "how did 'congealed salads' ever go out of style?' but rather, "and we complain about kale salads?" The series continues into the 1940s, with recipes to stretch wartime rations. The magic bullet? Gelatin. Still gelatin. Good source of protein, after all, if you're not vegetarian.

And finally, if cooking from 1930s and 1940s cookbooks doesn't help you lose weight by diminishing your appetite, a new study shows that listening to chewing sounds makes you eat less. Yep. Sit next to that guy in the theater crunching popcorn or by the vending machine where people crunch potato chips, and your body might be fooled into thinking you're actually taking part. I don't know if I believe this one, but if it's true...goodbye, audiobooks, hello Soundtracks of Crunching, Munching & Chewing?


To Cleanse or Not to Cleanse?


I went for a walk with a friend recently, who reported having joined a group of women in doing a cleanse, courtesy of an Arbonne representative among them. Apparently, the product "helps cleanse and detoxify the system and support the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Assists with the gentle elimination of toxins." Sounds good, right? (Apart from the 7-day, $50 price tag.) You drink the drinks, you skip the sugar, grains, dairy, processed foods, alcohol, and caffeine, and replace them with produce and lean protein. The promise? A cleansed digestive system with a side helping of weight loss.

Pic from Amazon

While other women in the group reported increased energy and some pounds evaporating, my friend was comparatively underwhelmed by the results and overwhelmed by the price tag. She dropped out.

Cleanses are the latest Big Thing, dietwise, and I'll be the first to admit we put a lot of garbage in our bodies. Hence, in my own family, our tradition of Sugar-Free January, to compensate for All-Sugar-All-the-Time December. This year I even went light on reintroducing sugar in February, only eating dessert about once a week and not sweating the sugar-content otherwise. Over the last two months, I've dropped six pounds. Not huge, but my pants fit more comfortably, and it's actually a net-positive diet, financially speaking, since I'm buying less sugar and butter and not replacing it with anything but a cup of herbal tea or a Satsuma.

The Wall Street Journal  ran two articles recently. One on the juice cleanse fad and one on which toxins actually do stay in our body. Their findings?

  1. Skip the cleanses and just eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk.
  2. Eat the fruits and vegetables as whole as possible, because the fiber in them keeps things moving.
  3. The toxins that linger in our body aren't the food ingredients so much as the weird plastics and chemicals we ingest through packaging and pesticides and environment, and those toxins, sadly, take 15 to 20 years to clear out!
WSJ's cool, if blurry, graphic

So, yes, you can cut certain food groups or ingredients from your diet. It may help you pinpoint a lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity, but it won't detoxify you. And, as everyone who has made drastic dietary changes knows, the more drastic the changes are, the less sustainable they are.

Instead of a purge or a fast, how about a food-positive lifestyle change?

  • Pass over the juice or smoothie and eat a piece of fruit or some veggies with dip whole.
  • Promise yourself you won't skip dessert, but you'll become adessert connoisseur--if it's not homemade or made by a baker you love from simple ingredients, you won't bother.
  • Replace one no-fiber food you have around the house with a fiber food. Mix brown rice into your white. Replace up to 1/3 of the white flour in a recipe with whole wheat. Mix whole-grain pasta into regular pasta. (I've done all these with no one in the family even noticing.)
  • Switch to naturally-leaner pastured meat from one of our Market farmers in at least one meal a week.
  • Try making your own yogurt. Simple and un-sugary and full of great probiotics.

Wishing you all a cleaner GI tract, #TightwadOrganic style.