Saturday, January 31, 2009

Must-have new book on vegetarian nutrition

Peggy Carlson, MD has compiled the ultimate source on vegetarian nutrition. Check out The Complete Vegetarian: The Essential Guide to Good Health (University of Illinois Press, 2008). Each chapter provides a comprehensive analysis and review on topics most important to vegetarians, including all of the relevant nutrients, common diseases that are affected by diet, vegetarianism in childhood, pregnancy, and lactation, sports nutrition for vegetarians, and vegetarian meal planning.

The chapters are written by experts in their respective fields and reviewed by Dr. Carlson. Unlike your basic "for dummies" books on vegetarianism, this one is "for smarties" -- it provides the latest scientific research and information, and puts it into a context that we can all relate to and learn from.

One particular area, in my opinion, that seems to swim in controversy is fats in the vegetarian diet. How much omega-3 do we need? How are the needs for fats different for vegans compared to vegetarians and omnivores? Should we take supplements? These questions and more are answered in the chapter on fats, written by Brenda Davis, RD, leading expert on fatty acid nutrition.

Dr. Carlson herself wrote most of the chapters on chronic diseases, and they provide a really in-depth review of the role of diet in preventing, managing, and reversing these conditions.

You can buy it from amazon or other booksellers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Make meal planning a success!

It's hard to plan meals! You have to have the time and the energy, and it helps to be in the mood to do it. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. This week, I planned my meals on Sunday and went shopping Monday. Here's what my week of dinners looks like:

Monday: Tofu and vegetables with Thai peanut sauce
Tuesday: Hawaiian "Chicken" with broccoli and quinoa
Wednesday: Bean chili, cornbread, and salad
Thursday: Spelt pasta, lentil "meatballs," veggies, marinara
Friday: Roasted vegetable pizza

It's Tuesday, and so far so good. One trick that saves a lot of trouble is the gadget pictured above: it's a double-decker steamer. Basically the steamer (which is a pot with holes) nests inside and atop a regular pot. The beauty is, that you can either just boil water in the pot, or, cook food. Either way, the stuff in the steamer gets steamed. For example, tonight I steamed the broccoli right on top of the cooking quinoa. Last night I steamed green beans right over the rice. This saves energy (one stove burner instead of 2), saves cleanup time, and keeps things neater.

Another trick: do a little pantry inventory to get started on your planning. Do you have a jar of curry, a packet of taco seasoning, or a can of black beans sitting around? Plan around what you have. If you're like me and keep lots of non-perishables in your pantry (usually because of a sale too good to pass up), then most of your shopping will be fresh produce and bulk grains and beans.

There are other tricks of the trade: using a pressure cooker or crock pot; keeping frozen veggies and canned beans for when you're in a pinch; and learning how to turn a salad into a main course. A little planning goes a long way towards being organized and well-fed... it also helps control waste, which is good for those of us on a tight budget. Happy planning!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Web Site of the Week: Raw Food Chef

If you think raw food is about weird ingredients and endless hours of prep, think again! Every cuisine has its longish recipes and its shortcuts, and raw food cuisine is no different.

In my quest for quick and easy raw recipes, I was thrilled to find Raw Food Chef, which is the web site for the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute. So this site is not only about recipes; it's a complete home-base for all that is raw.

This morning I made the Sunflower Sun-Dried Tomato Pate. It is absolutely spectacular, and so quick and easy to make. You do have to soak a couple of ingredients first, but it's not like you have to watch it happen; you just soak, go about your business, and later on, throw everything into the food processor. Delicious.

This site is comprehensive and very easy to navigate. You'll find general info about raw foods diets, information about certification (yup, you can become certified as a raw foods chef), classes galore (many of which are offered online!), a huge store bursting with tools and guides for raw "cooking," events, community stuff, and much more.

They also offer a free newsletter.

Whether you want to immerse yourself in the wonderful world of raw cuisine, or just get your feet wet and try a recipe or two, Raw Food Chef is a great place to start.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Vegan eating on a budget

Want to eat cheaply yet healthfully? Vegan is the way to go.

Vegans can still eat on a budget, stay or become healthy, and honor our values; it just takes a little bit of tweaking how we think about grocery shopping and structuring our meals. I’ve compiled several ways we can still eat healthy in our budgets, and how we can overcome some challenges of rising food costs.

Of course, no one approach fits all. It all comes down to tradeoffs. If your weekly sushi habit is non-negotiable, so be it. Feel free to pick and choose from these tips and maybe save a few dollars so you can still splurge with good conscience on the things you’d rather not sacrifice.

Perhaps one reason so many people think it costs so much to be a healthy vegan is because food items labeled “vegan” tend to be pricey. And this is true for things like frozen meals, soy cheese, faux meats, many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, snacks and desserts, fancy sauces, and prepared delicacies. But these foods are to be used more as condiments and sides, not as the main fare. Used that way, our diet is no more expensive than the average person’s; it is in fact less so. The healthiest diets are the most simple: they are based on whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds), fruits, and vegetables. And we don’t need a “vegan” label for those!

Regardless of price tags, foods that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD) are really the most expensive of all. This is because the SAD threatens our well-being and promotes chronic disease. So if we’re really going to analyze the cost of our diets, consider the cost over years of eating a poor diet. Medical care, lost work time, and chronic illness cost our country billions of dollars annually, not to mention pain and suffering, which of course have no price tag.

Whether you shop at Whole Foods or Wal Mart, you can make smart choices that will save you money:

Stick to a list. The point is to shop with a plan rather than impulsively.

Compare not only item prices, but unit prices (prices for the same quantity).

Keep a running total as you shop.

Never shop hungry. Trust me.

Clip or print coupons, but only for things you’re planning to buy.

In the produce section, choose fresh/whole over the pre-washed bagged stuff.

Fruits and veggies are not as pricey as you think (unless you include organic, out-of-season, and specialty items). According to a study by the Economic Research Service of the USDA in 2008, a person needing 2000 calories a day could meet their fruit and vegetable recommendations for less than $2.50 a day (I think we need more than the USDA recommendations, even then it’s still under $5 per day).

In-season fresh produce is almost always cheaper. And consider frozen.

Store brands are OK. Many store brands offer organic choices too.

Buy in Bulk. Flours, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, dry beans, and mixes are almost always cheaper in bulk. And you can buy only what you need.

Bypass the mixes. Boxed rice is little more than rice and a seasoning packet. For a quarter of the price, you can buy rice in bulk and add your own seasonings. Baking mixes are nice but you can save a bundle by baking from scratch. Easy recipes for vegan baked goods abound.

Go easy on the snack foods (cookies, chips, nondairy frozen desserts, etc.). Vegan “junk” food is fine on occasion, but regular consumption supports neither optimal health nor a tight budget. Splurge every now and then if you must (set a limit), or make your own using whole grains and minimal sweeteners.

Pass on the “single serving” packs. Trying to control calories? Pre-pack your own (in reusable containers of course).

Skip the warehouse clubs. Why? First of all, your savings (over regular store prices) over the course of a year would need to offset the annual fee. Second, foods like bread, fruit, and vegetables have to be consumed super-fast or else they’ll go to waste (not an issue for huge families or those who buy for others). Third, huge amounts of food in the home encourage overeating.

Start a garden.

Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Start your day with hot cereal made from whole grains.

When possible, make your own:
• seitan (all you need is wheat gluten, broth, and seasonings)
• popcorn
• soy milk (from soy beans, water, and optional flavorings)
• soy yogurt (from soy milk)
• sprouts (from fresh legumes and grains)
• nut butters (if you have a good food processor or grinder)
• veggie burgers
• bread (a bread machine is a fantastic investment)
• “energy” bars
• salsa

Focus on one-pot meals.

Be creative with leftovers. Make a wrap with last night’s black beans; use leftover lentil soup as a topper for whole-grain pasta; throw yesterday’s veggies into a tofu scramble.

Save from spoilage. Use what you have; throwing away food is throwing away cash.

Dine out smartly.

For more info on how to be a thrifty vegan, see my upcoming article in Vegetarian Voice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Easy Recipe: Vegan Pigs In Blankets

When I was a kid, I loved pigs-in-blankets, aka "cocktail franks." Of course, I never really thought about the fact that there really WERE chopped up pigs in there!

Recently we were invited to a potluck for families with children aged 3 and 4. I thought the little things would be a big hit, and I was right. And the recipe couldn't be easier! (DISCLAIMER: this is not a health-supporting recipe. Both ingredients are heavily refined foods. It is a party recipe, a fun recipe, a once-in-a-while food. So save it for a food-sharing event!)

Dina's EZ Vegan "Pigs" In Blankets

You will need:
  • 1 package of puff pastry (found in the frozen food section) (yup, the Pepperidge Farm stuff is vegan)
  • 2 packages of vegan hot dogs (we like the Tofurkey franks, but any will do)

Thaw the puff pastry according to package directions.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Count how many dogs you have and multiply by three. Slice each veggie dog crosswise into thirds. Once the puff pastry is thawed, slice it into long triangles -- make as many triangles as you need (number of dogs times 3). This is fun because you have to use your math skills as well as geometry :-). If you have school-aged kids in the house, this is a great activity! [And by the way, I made a few more triangles than I needed (on purpose!!) and made a few different things with it. Our favorite was chocolate-chips-in-a-blanket.]

Roll each triangle around a piggy. Pinch it closed and placed on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry starts to become golden brown.

Serve with fancy mustard (maple mustard is awesome), ketchup, BBQ sauce, hummus, whatever!

(Note: You could also use one package of hot dogs and just one of the pastry sheets, as the package comes with two)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

NEWS FLASH: Where do you get your red?

(Photo from the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida.)

Just where do they get the "natural color" from that ends up in candy or sweetened cereal? Many vegans are aware that some manufacturers use crushed cochineal bugs to color their foods, and worse, they never had to declare this source on the label! Until now.

According to this article from NutraIngredients, food and drink manufacturers that color their products with cochineal extract and carmine must now declare the ingredients on the label under a new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling.

The legislation is largely due to poor folks who have severe allergies to the additive, but it benefits us in other ways, not to mention the millions of (female only) insects who are bred to be crushed alive. Who wants that in our bodies? Now that labels will reveal this source, we can expect companies to switch to more humane and healthier colorings. What's wrong with beet extract?

Compliance due date is 2011. Until then, avoid artificially colored food, unless the label lists the source as something familiar and plant-based. Turmeric, beets, and blueberries are all used to naturally color food.

Top 5 Health Habits for 2009

Nobody's perfect, including myself. I fall into some bad habits and sometimes let the pounds creep on. When that happens it's time to take a good hard look at the problems, and come up with a plan for improvement. Here are my personal top 5 new health habits for 2009:

1. Improve time management. See the graphic above? (Click on it to enlarge.) It represents my daily goal: we only get 24 hours in a day, and with all that's going on it's easy to let priorities slip. Having your day mapped out in a pie chart is a really useful tool. You can do this too: either with a pencil and paper, or in Excel like I did it. Start with sleep (assign at least 7.5 hours), then other necessities like work, commuting, hygeine, and eating. Then add your priorities, which should include exercise and food preparation. It's kinda scary how fast that stuff adds up, and how little time is left for leisure. For that reason, I try to combine activities, such as cooking with my preschooler (food prep + family time in one), washing dishes while on a (muted) conference call, etc.

2. Start every day with a huge glass of water. I admit, one of my challenges is drinking enough water. I also admit that I'm often not hungry in the morning, so I sometimes go too long without anything to eat in the morning. Starting each day with 2 cups of water gets our metabolism going, rehydrates us after a long night, and prepares the body for a healthy day. It also helps control hunger, so we won't overeat at breakfast. On days I want something else, I'll make decaf green tea or sqeeze a little fruit juice in the water. I also keep a pitcher of decaf green tea in the refrigerator.

3. Make at least one meal a day RAW. This is breakfast or lunch, or both. Raw food is living food, and it supports a healthy body and high energy. Going 100% raw is not for me (though others certainly do amazing with it), but I think everyone can benefit with more raw foods in their diets. I got some great information on raw food living for vegans with The Raw Food Revolution Diet by Brenda Davis, Vesanto Melina, and Cherie Soria. Great raw breakfasts include fresh fruit with muesli, fruit smoothies with nut or seed butter, and pre-soaked rolled oats with fresh cashew "milk" and dried fruit. Raw lunches are typically big crunchy salads with different lettuces, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, etc., sometimes with sprouted lentils, raw "crackers" (you can get these at some health food stores or online), nuts, or seeds.

4. Listen to my body: don't push too hard. I am injury-prone. I have orthotics for my shoes and I've had my share of ankle and knee problems. I also have multiple sclerosis. When I push too hard, I suffer the consequences, sometimes for weeks or months. As much as I'd like to run 5 miles every day like I did in my 20's, that's no longer an option. So I mix up my workouts as much as possible, and take care to avoid injury, care for new aches and pains, and rest when I need to.

5. Make a big batch of soup or stew every week. Soups and stews are an easy way to pack in several servings of vegetables and beans. They're high in water and fiber, which fills us up and promotes weight loss. And of course they're chock full of health-supporting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They're easy to make, too! Just saute an onion and some garlic in olive oil in a big pot, add water or veggie broth, and add whatever combination of vegetables (fresh or frozen), beans (if you use dry beans, make sure they're little or you pre-cook them), and herbs/spices you like. Simmer until everything is tender. If you make a lot, you'll have enough to start your dinner every day (or freeze for later). Soup, by the way, is great for weight loss if you eat it before dinner, because it curbs your hunger so you eat less. I even got a friend in on this: we make something healthy and split it, and take turns with it.

What are your health goals for 2009? Whatever they are, you'll be more likely to stick to them if you write them down and look at them every day. Good luck!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Really? Vitamins don't help prevent disease?

You may have heard about or read this week's USA Today article, "Vitamins get 'F' in cancer prevention." What? When I saw the headline I was completely baffled. Then it hit me that when most folks hear the word "vitamin," they think of a pill or capsule. And that's just what this title is referring to. When we nutrition folks hear "vitamin," we think about vitamins in foods, and how nutrient-rich foods are proven cancer-fighters and lower risk of chronic disease. Indeed, the article confirms that, without a shadow of a doubt, nutrient-rich FOODS play a major role in the prevention and treatment of disease. Food is our main medicine; it is what nourishes us and becomes part of us. We literally are what we eat: all of the proteins, carbs, fats, water, vitamins, minerals, etc. that we put into our bodies from the time we are born (and your mother's food before that) are the building blocks of all the cells that make up YOU. So of course that headline was designed to catch our attention. It did mine.

I hope that nutrition skeptics read past the title. Because here's the best quote of the article: "
health-conscious consumers should focus on getting their vitamins from plant foods, such as vegetables and whole grains, which contain precise mixtures of hundreds or even thousands of compounds. Many of these compounds may work better in the combinations selected by nature." Another point scored for a vegan lifestyle.

This article reiterates what we've known for many years: certain supplements, taken in isolation, may be harmful. Beta carotene and vitamin E are culprits in notorious studies that suggested that these nutrients (taken as supplements) may do more harm than good. The main reason cited for individual nutrients' lack of protectiveness is that nutrients found in whole foods work together, synergistically, to enhance health and protect against disease. Isolate just one or two nutrients from the rest of the food and boost the dose, and the balance is thrown off.

However, scientific research on certain supplements strongly favor a benefit when taken along with a healthy diet, particularly for vegans. These nutrients include:

Vitamin D. Take 1000 IU per day to ensure good status.

DHA. Take 250-300 mg per day to promote healthy fatty acid balance.

Vitamin B12. Take 400 to 1000 micrograms per day to keep status high.

Also, keep in mind that taking the RDA for all the nutrients is ok, so do pop that multi to ensure good nutrient status. Just beware of taking vitamins/minerals above the RDA for any one nutrient, unless specified by your nutritionist or physician.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Years Eve Celebration Dinner

I've been wanting to blog about the New Year's Eve Dinner that my family enjoyed last week, but what a long and busy weekend, what with some great hiking weather (finally, dry AND above freezing!), a few local bargains to be had, and just chilling out with the family, enjoying some lovely free time.

Our dinner was hearty and delicious, with an Eastern flair. Clockwise from the top you see: twice baked samosa stuffed potatoes, chili lime crusted tofu triangles with dipping sauce, coconut-tamarind vegetable-chick pea curry, and saffron-garlic rice with toasted almonds.

Most of the recipes came from Veganomicon, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. The actual recipe names and pages are "Samosa Stuffed Baked Potatoes" (p60), Chile Cornmeal-Crusted Tofu (p127) and Saffron-Garlic Rice (p119). The curry was a "cheat" -- I just sauteed some onions and peppers, added a can of rinsed and drained chickpeas and a pound of frozen spinach, and poured on a jar of coconut tamarind curry sauce.

Everything was exceptionally good. This cookbook is truly excellent and comes with my highest recommendation. I do have to warn you, though, unless Isa and Terry have fulltime kitchen staff, their estimate of 20 minutes (minus baking time) for the potatoes is a typo. It is a very labor-intensive dish; there's no way I could possibly dice the onion, dice the carrot, grate the ginger, mince the garlic, crush the coriander seeds, juice the lemon, scoop out the potatoes, and actually saute (which it says to do for 7-10 minutes, then add a bunch of things and cook some more...) all in 20 minutes! The sauteeing itself took 20 minutes. So, chef beware; this dish is totally worth the effort, but pre-prep he ingredients in advance!

The tofu was surprisingly easy to make, and turned out really good. First you dip in a batter, then a cornmeal mixture, then fry. The cornmeal mixture called for lime zest (it ended up being a whole lime for me), so I was left with a naked lime. I decided last minute (and I mean last minute -- everything was already on the table) to squeeze all the juice out of the lime to create a limey dipping sauce. It really added a nice touch to the dish, and you get to use the whole lime! I whisked together the juice of one lime, some rice vinegar, a bit of agave nectar, a dash of tamari, and a sliced up scallion for the sauce.

The rice was really special; it calls for saffron threads (which are pricey and, in my kitchen, get used only on special occasions). It, too, was a pretty easy and quick recipe.

I'd love to post the recipes here but that wouldn't be fair -- you really should buy this book!!

Happy New Year!