Monday, November 24, 2008

A good week for nutrition news

We all love to read good things about foods we love but we know, deep down, are not really nutritious (yes, me too). As a vegan, I also enjoy reading things about foods that people justify, over and over, as healthful and appropriate, when we all know that regular consumption of these foods is the foundation of chronic disease. The more evidence that piles up against the consumption of animal products, the bigger push there will be towards the general acceptance of plant-based diets.

This month, the journal Diabetes Care (click here for the abstract) published a study by Harvard researchers who reported that people who eat eggs daily may substantially increase their risk of type 2 diabetes.

According to the study, this is the first time researchers investigated this particular connection. The study was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; no conflict of interest has been reported.

The study analyzed the eating habits of 57,000 people (a combination of the Physician's Health Study and the Women's Health Study) and concluded that men and women with the highest level of egg consumption (one a day or more) were 58% more likely and 77% more likely, respectively, to develop type 2 diabetes than those who did not eat eggs.

That's pretty impressive. Sometimes study results can be attributed to chance or confounding variables. With numbers this high (57,000 subjects) and the effect this strong, it's highly unlikely that these results are not real. Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation, so the effect may not be quite this strong, and of course not generalizable to everybody. Some alternate explanations for the reported observations include (per the lead researchers): First, the data did not include repeat fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and other biomarkers of glucose metabolism to comprehensively examine possible physiologic mechanisms. Second, he observational studies may also have been limited by self-reporting and residual confounding, Third, the generalizability may have been limited as well by the homogeneous, primarily Caucasian health professional population, which may have different behaviors than the general population (reference).

In other news, a recent Dutch study presented at a recent American Heart Association Meeting reports that all trans fats -- regardless of its source -- raise blood cholesterol levels. (Click here for more details.) This is an important finding because historically, nutrition professionals have warned against the trans fats that are manufactured as a result of hydrogenation of fat (listed on a label as "partially hydrogenated oil" -- found mainly in processed foods like crackers, cookies, and condiments), essentially ignoring the contribution of naturally-occurring trans fat, that is, trans fat found in dairy products and meat. Most people aren't even aware that animal products are a natural source of these damaging fats. The amount of trans fats in a typical serving of meat or dairy is relatively low, but over time the amounts do add up and are indeed significant. Add yet another reason to follow a primarily (or exclusively) plant-based diet.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hummus Heaven

I love hummus. I crave it like some crave chocolate cake. When I was pregnant, my favorite meal was a sesame bagel smeared with hummus and topped with a thick slice of tomato.

Hummus is a simple spread made from cooked, mashed chick peas (garbanzo beans), sesame tahini (ground sesame seeds, or sesame butter), lemon, garlic, olive oil, and seasonings. The recipe originated in the Middle East, and sure enough if you visit different ethnic restaurants, each region does something a little differently with their hummus. The quality, type, and proportion of the ingredients yield wildly different results. Vary with herbs like parsley; other beans like black beans; add-ins like roasted red pepper or hot peppers, and the possibilities are endless. Cedars brand used to make a chocolate hummus!

A trip to your local grocery store will reveal no shortage of hummus; there are at least 7 different brands I can think of, with a huge variety of flavors, sizes, and prices. I have sampled many, many types of hummus in my time, but none compare to the one pictured here: it is from my local bagel store, called King of Bagels, at 560 Bloomfield Ave, Montclair. The woman who works there makes the hummus herself, and it's delicious.

Since I love hummus so much, I thought I'd share some favorite ways to use it, and give you my own recipe:

1 can chick peas (drained, liquid reserved)
1/4 cup sesame tahini
3 cloves garlic
juice of 1-2 lemons
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
fresh parsley
salt, pepper, and cumin to taste (note: you may not need salt because the liquid that the chick peas are canned in is already salted.)

In a blender, puree the drained chick peas and remaining ingredients. Add reserved liquid slowly until desired consistency is reached.

Hummus is good for you too! Of course it is -- it's 100% whole plant foods (plus the olive oil, which you could leave out). It is a good source of iron, calcium, zinc, protein, fiber, and vitamin C. And it has a nice balance of carbs, fat, and protein, making it ideal for stabilizing blood sugars and avoiding that spike that often results from sugary or low-fiber snacks.

Some uses:
  • In a pita with lettuce, tomato, and chopped raw veggies
  • As a mayonnaise or pesto stand-in, on a roasted vegetable sandwich (see my last post!)
  • Thinned out and used as a salad dressing
  • As a dip for raw veggies, chips, pretzels, mini toasts, rice cakes... anything you can dip
  • On a cracker
  • On a slice of bread or bagel, topped with red onion, sprouts, lettuce, tomato...
  • In a wrap with tabouli (another Middle Eastern salad) or falafel
  • As a sauce -- try tossing with piping hot spaghetti and freshly roasted or steamed vegetables
  • As a topper for brown rice or other whole grain
  • Mixed with chopped olives, roasted portabello mushrooms, and roasted red peppers for a chunky side-dish
  • Right off the spoon -- a great pre-workout snack!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Top 10 Calorie Wasters

Even though I'm a dietitian, I don't believe in counting calories (or fat or carbs for that matter), in the strict sense, and I don't advise others to do it, even if they need to lose weight. The reason is because calorie counting is tedious at best, and, if you're susceptible to OCD or all-or-nothing thinking, the very act will drive you loony. Who wants to feel that way, when the GOAL is to feel great?

Nonetheless, the harsh reality is that calories do matter. Calories are merely the measure of energy in a food. So if a food contains 100 calories of energy, that 100 calories enters your body to do one of 2 things: 1) supply the energy your body needs to function (whether that be to think, walk, jump rope, produce a heartbeat, lift a dumbbell, or breathe), or, 2) become stored for later (fat). That's it, it's pretty simple. Where it gets complicated is asking questions about how many calories we need, which sources of calories (food) should we focus on and in what proportions, balancing calories with exercise, and so forth. Unfortunately we can get so caught up in the hype that we lose the big picture: Calories are a GOOD thing. They are our fuel for life. But when we overindulge in food, the excess energy gets converted into its ever-feared storage form: fat.

Last night my family went out to a local pub, as they offer face-painting and a kid-friendly atmosphere. I ordered an eggplant and red pepper panini (hold the fresh mozz cheese but please, yes, still DO charge for it), which, to my surprise and initial delight, came with a gigantic side of french fries: a rare treat. I tasted a fry and was immediately disappointed: they were tasteless. I had to add salt and ketchup to make them edible. After a few I stopped, realizing that the ketchup and salt were what I was enjoying, and why eat ketchup and salt plus a bland, deep-fried host-carrier? That's when I got the idea for this post: why even eat food that is loaded with calories but does nothing for our taste buds (and usually, nutrition)? If we're going to indulge in a rich food, shouldn't it be absolutely scrumptious?

I've come up with a top-ten list of calorie wasters: those foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients but don't taste delicious. In other words, "not worth it."

1. French Fries. Unless the first bite makes you sigh with ecstasy, pass on the fries. You're eating mostly oil anyway. Want potatoes? Get one baked with the skin, or roasted with olive oil and rosemary. Yum.

2. Store-bought national brand cookies. There was a time that I celebrated the fact that Oreos are vegan (they weren't always). And having one now and then is fine. But talk about a calorie waster -- Oreos are available EVERYWHERE, if I ever want one, so why splurge on something so everyday, so loaded with calories and fat, and completely devoid of anything health-supporting? Bake your own (at least you KNOW what's in them) and share with your neighbors. You'll feel better and save money and packaging. Plus you'll be very popular on your street.

3. Bad chocolate. (Enough said.)

4. Stale foods. Have you ever eaten those last few crackers, even though they've transformed into cardboard, because you didn't want to "waste" them? I have, and now I realize, they were wasted on ME -- better in the trash, and I should have grabbed a banana instead.

5. "Buttered" popcorn. I know I said I'm not a numbers gal, but did you know that the glop you can add to movie popcorn (which is usually vegan, mind you, but possibly not suitable for human consumption) is primarily hydrogenated oil? According to an article from CSPI/Nutrition Action, a large popcorn has about 80 grams of fat (due to the oil it's POPPED in), and adding "butter" topping adds 50 more grams of fat? Do you really want 1170 calories from fat ALONE while you sit at the movies and barely taste what you're eating? I'm a fan of freshly popped movie popcorn, but I find if I share a no-"butter" small size with my movie partner, the indulge factor is just right, and I don't have to worry that I just clogged an artery.

6. Sugary drinks. I once had a client who, after following my advice for weight loss, completely eliminated all calorie-containing beverages, and lost 55 pounds in 3 months. No other changes. 55 pounds. Mind you, he was drinking about three 2-liter bottles of Pepsi a day, which is unusual, but it demonstrates how quickly calories can add up and how they count just as much as calories in food. In fact, I would argue that the calories in drinks count MORE because the body does not have to work hard to digest it. If you have a sandwich, for example, you have to chew, digest, and assimilate all those nutrients, processes that require energy, so you're actually burning some calories just to process the sandwich. Sugary beverages, on the other hand, aren't much different than an introvenous feed of sugarwater. Go ahead and sip on sparkling organic grape juice now and then, but gulping down soda or juice on a regular basis is just a waste, pure and simple.

7. Large portions. I've been guilty of this: I am out to dinner or eating at someone's home and I realize I am full, but I keep eating anyway because [insert excuse here]. People around me are eating, I don't want to insult the host, the food is really good, I don't want to waste food, I'm not paying attention to my satiety because I'm too busy socializing, etc. etc. etc. If you're full, stop. Food that goes into your body that it does not truly need is worse than trashing it: either way, the food has been made (thus waste is not really an issue at this point), and the only real difference between that food ending up in your stomach or the garbage is, it won't end up as body fat if its destiny is the trash. Feel guilty about wasting food? Ask for a doggie bag. Start composting. Best yet: take only a little food, and if you're still hungry, take seconds.

8. Supersizing to "save." In this value-driven society, sellers tempt us to "maximize value" by spending just a little more to get a lot more of whatever it is you're buying. This is especially true for food. And who isn't tempted (for just one more dollar you can double your portion!)? But we must look at the "extra" we're getting and ask ourselves if we really need (or even want) extra. Extra food that our bodies don't need will, by design, end up as extra body fat. Remember, even if you pass up that great deal, you STILL end up with more money in your wallet at the end of the day. (On the other hand, I encourage this behavior at the grocery store for non-perishables: if you get a free can of beans if you buy 3, but you only need 2, by all means buy 3 and get the one free! You won't end up eating more; you'll just save some money.)

9. Pre-sweetened stuff. From soy yogurt to breakfast cereal, it makes sense to buy the "plain" or "unsweetened" variety and doctor it up yourself. Maple & Brown Sugar instant oatmeal packets, for example, have 160 calories and 13 grams of sugar, while the plain has 100 calories and 0 grams of sugar per packet. You're better off eating the plain with a cup of chopped fresh apples and a dash of cinnamon for the same calories, plus a handful of nuts for smart calories and fat, and staying power so you're not famished by 10AM.

10. Fancy coffee drinks. Consider this scenario: a week of Starbucks on your way to work, each time a grande (medium size).

Monday: Soy Caffe Mocha (250 cals)
Tuesday: Soy Cappuccino (110 cals)
Wednesday: Soy Gingersnap Latte (270 cals)
Thursday: Iced Soy Caramel Macchiato (220 cals)
Friday: Soy Hazelnut Hot Chocolate--Hey, it's Friday!... (510 cals--yup, that's sans whip).

Grand total: 1360 calories. Over a month's time, that's enough extra calories to make over a pound of body fat.

Need a morning buzz? Save about 1100 calories a week by choosing a Starbucks grande brewed coffee with a splash of vanilla soy milk. Better yet, save money and packaging and make it youself (a French press is great, or set up your machine the night before).

Deprivation stinks. That's not what this is about. It's about making minimal sacrifices and wise choices in order to maximize optimal health and longevity, while still leaving room for occasional indulgences. Isn't that ultimately what we all want?

(By the way: I only ate 1/2 my sandwich last night, so at lunch today I reheated it and added a spread of hummus--it was amazing. Hummus is a great mate for eggplant and peppers!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ban the BMI?

You know the BMI (Body Mass Index), right? It's a number that represents a relationship between your height and your weight, and is supposed to be a decent predictor of chronic disease risk (go HERE to calculate your BMI).

Well, step aside, BMI: According to a new study, a simple measurement of waist size is an even better predictor. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a large waistline increases the risk of premature death even for people who are not technically overweight. In fact, the heaviest 20% have twice the risk of dying, according to the research.

The authors conclude, "These data suggest that both general adiposity andabdominal adiposity are associated with the risk of death and support the use of waist circumference or waist-to-hip ratio, in addition to BMI in assessing the risk of death," meaning, in English, that waist circumference and/or waist-hip ratio will give us more information than just the BMI -- but not to scrap the BMI, just use both measurements to better assess risk of death.

There are strengths and weaknesses to all methods of body measurement in predictability of death: for one, skeletal sizes vary, so what is slender to a large-framed person might be overweight for a small-framed person. Second (this is the main weakness of the BMI), having a lot of muscle mass will put a potentially very fit individual into the "obese" BMI category. Third, for waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio, there is inherent measurement error (give three people a tape measure and a subject, and you're likely to get 3 different measurements, because there is variation in angle of the tape measure, the placement of the tape measure, and the force with which the tape measure is pulled around). Regardless, these measurements are still useful- as part of a larger assessment that includes diet, exercise, and genetics- to predict death and disease risk. Of course, what many people forget is that ALL of us have some degree of risk, and of course our overall risk of dying is, indeed, 100%. What we care about is, not dying because we're not healthy (as opposed to dying of simple old age).

If this sounds too clinical for you, then let's get back on the ground and look at the big picture: Eat right (and not too much) and exercise, and these measurements won't mean much for you. Maintain a healthy body with lean muscle and minimal fat, and you can be sure that your chances of living long and healthy will skyrocket.

But it's not all about weight. I could get skinny on a diet of tea and celery, or I could be far healthier with a little more "meat" on me and optimally nourished. That's why vegan nutrition is so exciting to me. We, as intelligent, free people in charge of our bodies and with real control over our fates, have the power to feed our bodies the healthiest foods and to move our bodies in the healthiest ways. What a privilege! We have this incredible gift: a body, that is all ours, the only thing, really, that belongs to each of us 100%. We have the power to choose when to say no, when to push ourselves away from the table, when to take seconds, and when to exercise. We have the power to choose the foods we put into our bodies and how much, to lift heavy objects or jump up and down or walk rather than drive. Yet so many of us take this freedom for granted, and become slaves to our jobs and other responsibilities. Not that these things aren't important: they're just not MORE important than keeping ourselves healthy. So make your good health a priority today. You and your loved ones will thank you.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sweet Potato Muffins

I love to bake on Sunday mornings. And now that my son is 3, he's really into helping. I was going to make pumpkin muffins, but I'm getting a little tired of pumpkin these days, so instead I created a sweet potato muffin recipe. I'm sure it will be just as good with pumpkin puree. Probably any puree, like applesauce, mashed banana, or butternut squash. In fact, I bet this recipe is quite versatile in general: add nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, go crazy. My version is "naked" but really tasty. It was delicious with coffee and fruit, and should be a nice pairing with a savory soup too. I'm going to freeze some so there's always something yummy for my son's lunchbox over the next few preschool days.

By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this recipe is quite nutritious. Sweet potato is PACKED with beta-carotene, and not a bad source of vitamin C, fiber, potassium, and iron. I analyzed the recipe with, and here's what you get per muffin (click on the label image to see the values)--less than 150 calories, just 3 grams of fat, and about a third of the vitamin A you need in a day:

Weekend Sweet Potato Muffins
  • 1/3 cup of organic, trans-fat-free shortening (such as Earth Balance)
  • 1 cup vegan sugar
  • Egg Replacer prepared as the equivalent of 2 eggs (1 tbsp E.R. + 1/4 cup water, beaten well)
  • 1 15-ounce can sweet potato puree
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hemp milk (you can substitute soy or rice milk)
  • 1 cup organic all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder

Let shortening get to room temperature (or soften in nuker a few seconds at a time). Beat in a large bowl, using a hand beater, with sugar, prepared egg replacer, vanilla, and sweet potato puree.

In a medium bowl, whisk together ther remaining ingredients until well-blended. Add gradually to wet ingredients, folding in gently with a rubber scraper or large wooden spoon. When the ingredients are just mixed (don't overmix), fill 24 muffin pan cups evenly (a little more than 1/2 full for each) and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes.

Make the most of leftover ingredients

I admit: I wasn't always very careful about food waste. Not a week would go by where something in the fridge didn't get deep-sixed as a result of being neglected and forgotten. Oftentimes, a recipe called for parts of a whole, for example, 1 cup of pumpkin puree (and a can contains almost 2 cups) or 1/2 block of tofu, or 1 tbsp chopped parsley.

These days, with most of us feeling "the pinch," thus being more mindful about maximizing our food dollar, paired with the awareness of consumption and waste patterns that are literally ruining our planet, it is more important than ever to do our best to minimize food waste. At the same time, of course, we want to maximize nutrition and flavor.

Here are some tips around what to do with leftover ingredients.

Fresh parsley, cilantro, or other fresh herb

Many of us buy parsley a lot: quite a few recipes call for a tablespoon or two of fresh parsley, and it always makes a fine garnish. But if your parsley (or other fresh herb) is starting to look a little sad, remove the big stems, rinse well, chop it up (or put it in your food processor for a couple of pulses) and use it as the base of a tabouli salad. Traditional tabouli is made with parsley and cracked wheat (bulgur), but you can make awesome tabouli with nutritious, gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet, and any herb you want. Just cook up a cup of dry grain with 2-4 cups of water (depending on the grain: refer to a grain cooking chart like this one). Use a pressure cooker, if you have one, to save time. Then fluff the grain, let cool, and toss with the parsley, olive oil, and lemon juice. Get creative and add pine nuts, halved cherry tomatoes, and/or cooked beans. Fresh herbs are also great for homemade tomato salsas, bean dips, hummus, and dressings.


Not only should you welcome incidental grain leftovers -- I recommend cooking up extras for future meals. Cooked grains will keep fresh in a covered container in the fridge for up to 5 or so days, and they cut time off of meal prep. You can use them at every meal: hot porridge in the morning with soy milk, nuts, and dried fruits; a lunchtime salad (see herbs above), a side dish at dinner, or made into a main dish with the addition of any combination of cooked vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, and seasonings.

Tomato paste / tomato sauce

Raise your hand if you never witnessed your tomato paste grow a fine white or green mold. No one? Not surprising. Most recipes call for just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, and while they come in little cans, they're still too big for most recipes. I have found that measuring it out in 1-tablespoon blobs and storing it in a covered ice cube tray in the freezer is a great solution. If you'd rather use it up, keep in mind that opened tomato paste keeps in a covered container in the fridge for about 2 weeks. Tomato paste can boost the flavor and texture of tomato-based sauces, salsas, and most soups and stews (whose flavors would not be overpowered by the addition of tomato). I often add tomato paste to canned low sodium lentil soup for a nice flavor kick, and tomato paste can even be added to some baked goods, like hearty muffins and homemade yeast breads.


Leftover tofu goes bad fast. Even faster if you forget to change the water it's stored in each day. Here are a few great ways to use up leftover tofu: sliced, fried in a bit of oil, and used as a sandwich base. You can cube and add to most any main dish. Or freeze it: squeeze out the water, wrap it tighly in plastic wrap, and freeze. It lasts several months, and can be used as a chicken substitute, as it takes on a chewy texture once frozen. One of my favorite ways to use tofu (leftover or not) is in a tofu "egg" salad. Mash it coarsely and add chopped celery, vegan mayo, salt and pepper, and fresh or dried dill. Serve on crackers or in a pita with leafy lettuce and sliced tomato. (My son loves to find this in his lunchbox, on whole wheat bread with crunchy romaine lettuce.)


I love leftover potatoes! I make extra, just to have leftovers. Sweet or white, potatoes have endless culinary potential. You can do a breakfast hash, twice-baked stuffed potatoes (scoop out the pulp of a leftover baked potato, mash it up with other stuff, put it back, and bake again!), cubed and added to curries, soups, and stews, cubed and made into a salad (try one of the awesome potato salad recipes at, mashed and served with golden gravy, the list goes on and on.

Coconut milk

I end with this one because if you noticed in my last post, my recipe called for just 1 cup of lite coconut milk. Usually I try to use all of a can of something, but coconut milk is pretty rich, and stretches very well between two recipes.

The photo above is one of my many curry renditions. This one used leftover cubed tofu, leftover coconut milk, and leftover curry simmer sauce. You can make up your own version too. This recipe goes great with leftover potatoes too.

Make-the-most-of-leftovers curry

  • 1/2 can lite coconut milk
  • 1/2 jar vegan curry simmer sauce (Trader Joes makes a nice tomato-based one, which is what I used here)
  • 1 small onion, preferably organic, chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic (or 1-2 tsp jarred garlic)
  • 1 tbsp canola or olive oil
  • 1 1-lb bag frozen chopped spinach, preferably organic
  • 1 can chick peas, preferably organic, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 block tofu
  • garam masala (optional)
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds or whatever nut you've got on hand

Whisk together the simmer sauce and coconut milk. Adjust to taste by adding curry powder or, if too strong, add water. Saute the onion and garlic in the oil until the garlic starts to brown. Add the spinach and cook, stirring and breaking up any blocks of frozen spinach, until the spinach is heated through. Add about 1/2 of the sauce. Add the chick peas and tofu, stir well, and add the remaining sauce. Sprinkle with garam masala to taste. Stir until heated through. Serve with leftover or freshly cooked rice, and sprinkled with sliced almonds.

Note: The variations here are truly endless. You can start with an onion and a sauce, and then really anything goes!