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Category Archives: Health and Nutrition

This is all about the reasoning behind ingredient selection. What is healthy?

Goodbye Soy

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Goodbye soy!

In my endeavors to become a better informed consumer and improve my health, I have decided to completely give up soy. Yes, soy is sold in health stores and marketed as a healthy alternative to meat proteins, but since I’ve been doing my homework, I’m convinced that we, as consumers, are not getting the whole truth about soy.

So, if soy is really unhealthy, how come we don’t know about it? Well, soy is a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s not easy to take down a beast this size.

But if you do your research, you will find that there are a lot of good resources out there warning about the dangers of soy: like the Weston A. Price Foundation and Mercola.com

From my readings, I’ve come to understand that soy reduces the absorption of minerals like calcium, because of its high levels of phytic acid. It also interferes with protein digestion and can cause pancreatic disorders. Soy increases the body’s requirements for vitamin D and B12. When soy is processed, it forms MSG: you may have heard of it… it’s a very potent neurotoxin. Furthermore, soy contains high levels of aluminum which is very harmful to the kidneys and nervous system. But what I remember reading about the most, was how soy disrupts endocrine function and can potentially cause infertility or breast cancer in women.

Fermented soy products like miso are not as harmful as the soy we get in North America.

And yet, after all those warning signs, soy is still considered a health food. This article was particularly interesting to me, because the author (PhD) took all the pro soy arguments in the ongoing debate out there and explained how they reached their conclusion and why it is flawed. My favorite part is the Okinawa argument. Yes, Okinawans eat soy and yes, they are a healthy people. But guess what. They eat soy as a condiment, not as a main protein replacement. Apparently, old-fashioned fermented soy products like miso, natto and tempeh are fine. In North America, none of our soy products are fermented. Also, Okinawans eat a lot of fish and *drum rolls*: lard. I’ve barely summarized just a small part of the article but this is a must-read for anyone interested in the soy debate.

Alright, so how do you not eat soy? Well… you have to be careful. Soy is apparently in at least 60% of processed foods found at the grocery store and pretty much 100% of fast foods. Soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier in almost all chocolates. Anything with vegetable oil has soy (mayo, sauces, and salad dressings come to mind); a lot of sausages and deli meats contain soy. And of course, there are the obvious, like soy milk and tofu. You just have to be careful and read the ingredients.

It’s really not that hard, when you’ve been doing it a while. And it allows you to get creative in the kitchen! Make your own mayo (red palm oil is a great substitute), make your own salad dressings, make your own chocolate! Even make your own soy sauce with healthy substitute ingredients!

This may not be a dietary change where you will feel the benefits right away, but after examining all the details, it is definitely a very smart long term health choice.

Fats: the good, the bad and the ugly

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We’ve all heard that saturated fats are bad. It clogs our arteries, it makes us gain weight, it has bad cholesterol and the list of terrible things seems to go on and on. We watch TV and every other commercial is about low fat yogurt or some such thing. But, there is a new movement emerging out there, quietly mind you, since low fat diets are a huge market now, and it’s saying that saturated fats are not only not bad for us, they’re actually quite healthy. When I think about it, it makes sense: our ancestors ate a lot of animal fat, the traditional Inuits pretty much have a diet of blubber and are real healthy tough cookies, and what about the fact that our own body produces saturated fats to store energy?

Always look at what's in your food.

Don’t rejoice too quickly though. Even if saturated fats are part of a healthy diet, there are other fats out there we want to avoid. Typically, on food labels, you will see saturated fats, transfats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. So what does it even all mean?

Saturated fats: these are found in animal tissue and tropical oils, like coconut or palm. They help our body absorb many important minerals and vitamins (which are fat soluble). They also protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins and help enhance the immune system.

Look at these healthy monounsaturated fats!

Monounsaturated fats: these are found in olive oil, avocadoes, almonds, pecans, cashews and peanuts in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are stable and do not go rancid easily, unlike polyunsaturated fats. Our body produces and uses monounsaturated fats for many different functions.

Polyunsaturated fats: this is a tricky one. Polyunsaturated fats contain the essential omega-3s and omega-6s, which the body cannot make on its own, that’s why they are called essential. Even so, it does not make polyunsaturated fats healthy, since they go rancid when heated. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals, which attack cells and causes damage in DNA/NRA strands. What? That translates to things like wrinkles, premature aging, tumors, plaque and autoimmune diseases. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, canola), which is in almost all packaged and processed food. Our diet today can contain as much as 30% of calories from polyunsaturated fats, but research indicates that a healthy number should be 4%, just like our ancestors consumed.

Salmon is an excellent source of Omega-3 and we should all try to eat more of it.

The best eggs would come from a chicken foraging for food in the wild. I know that's not very practical in this day and age, but nutrition-wise, it would be the healthiest.

Another big problem with commercial vegetable oils is that they have much more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Too much Omega-6 is linked with blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain. Not enough Omega-3 is linked with asthma, learning defficiencies and heart disease. This is an imbalance that is extremely hard to fix, because vegetable oils are everywhere and good sources of Omega-3 are becoming more and more scarce. Did you know that eggs used to contain a ration of 1:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but commercial supermarket eggs can contain as much as nineteen more times Omega-6.

Transfats: these are hydrogenated oils. Avoid them like the plague. Basically, hydrogenated oils are polyunsaturated fats (so cheap oils, like corn or soy), already rancid from the extraction process, which are mixed with metal particles like nickel oxide. Then comes the high pressure, high temperature, and emulsifiers and starches are added. Did you know margarine is naturally grey? So after all that, the hydrogenated oils are bleached to make them more appealing (somehow, it’s not working for me). Partially hydrogenated oils are much worse than fully hydrogenated oils, but I suggest staying away from both. Which, one more time, can be hard to do, because if a product has less than 0.5g of transfat, it will be listed as 0 transfat. Just read the ingredients and stay away from hydrogenated oils.

So now that you know more about fats, here is how to choose oils. First, it’s important to know that oils all have a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, just in different quantities. Good oils will be rich in saturated/monounsaturated fats and the ones you want to stay away from will have more polyunsaturated and transfats.

What do I use?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: I love the taste, I enjoy it a lot in salads and it’s a healthy, useful oil to keep in the pantry.

High Oleic Sunflower Oil: If you must have a seed oil… well this is probably the healthiest out there. Make sure it’s not plain sunflower oil, but the high oleic one. It’s very rich in monounsatured fats and barely has any polyunsaturated fats. I’ve never found this at the grocery store (don’t confuse it with high oleic safflower oil, the ratio of mono to poly isn’t as healthy) but I know some places sell it, just not in my area. It’s easy enough to buy online though.

Coconut Oil: This is a great oil for baking. It does have a strong coconut taste though. You can find this in any Whole Foods. Note that it is semi-solid at room temperature.

My very own bucket of red palm oil, which I reserve for deep frying only.

Red Palm Oil: I use it for deep frying. This oil is also rich in betacarotene, which is what gives it its rich red color. It’s an oil that’s impossible to find in grocery store… I heard it used to be very popular and after the whole deal with “saturated fats are terrible!”, it got a bad reputation. I buy mine online in bulk and even though it’s a bit pricier, since I use it mainly for frying, it lasts a very long time.

Butter: I love butter. I use it to sautee onions, garlic, mushrooms. I also use it all the time for baked goods. If any recipe requires oil, I try and substitute butter as much as I can.

Lard: I’ve never actually cooked with it, but the rare times I buy chips at the grocery store, I always pick ones that were fried in lard.

No, I did not make all of this stuff up. I’ve been reading a lot on fats lately and these are the articles that spoke to me the most. They’re all backed up with actual studies and they are an absolute must read if you want to be on the right path to healthy eating.

The skinny on fats

Olive Oil Buyer’s Guide

Tropical plant fats: palm oil

Milling your own flour

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There are a many advantages to making your own flours at home. First, if you don’t eat gluten, you know that the flours you can buy at the store are expensive. Well, if you make your own, and buy your grains, seeds and legumes in bulk, the cost goes way down. Also, if you mill your own flour, you can soak your grains first, making them much healthier to eat.

My trusty little mill grinder.

The first thing you need is a mill grinder. It’s a pretty pricy kitchen appliance, but I couldn’t live without mine anymore. After a lot of reasearch, I decided to use the Nutrimill, mainly because I read good reviews on it and it can mill chickpeas, which is a staple of my diet. But there are a lot of different choices out there, with varying price tags, so it’s important to do your research.

Make sure you look at the manual and instructions of your mill grinder, to determine how it works and what it can  and cannot mill. That will help you figure out what to buy and what flours you can make. I use brown rice, chickpeas and millet. Millet has a really strong taste and is not my favorite, but that’s what is available in my area. Although, I recently found a little place to get amaranth and buckwheat from, so I can start mixing it up!

Proper storing preserves freshness.

I make flour 2-3 times a month. When you soak grains, it reduces their shelf life. So every week, I plan all my meals, figure out how much flour I will need and mill the exact amount. I keep all my flours in air tight containers in the fridge and I would they are perfectly safe and tasty for about two weeks.

It’s also important to note that grains expand a little when soaked. I measured the exact quantities last time I made flour and 3 cups of brown rice yielded 4 cups of flour, same for millet. 3 cups of chickpeas yielded 6 cups of flour.

Alright, so, you have a mill grinder, you’ve made your list of flours, you’ve soaked the grains 24 hours and rinsed them, now what?

Millet and rice about to get dried.

Well, mill grinders are made to mill dry grains, so the next step is drying. Put the grains on a cookie sheet and stick them in the oven at the lowest setting (170F) for 10-12 hours. You can stir them every once in a while to make sure they all get equally exposed to heat. It’s very important that they dry, or they will clog up your mill grinder.

If you are making chickpea flour, there’s an extra step before drying them. Chickpeas more than double in size when soaked and they do not fit in the feeder of my mill grinder, which I learned the hard way. Funny story… I tried to pulse them in my food processor to get them smaller, but it’s not exactly made to handle dry beans. I had no choice but to cut all the chickpeas in half… with my teeth. Don’t worry, I was only baking for myself, but the point is, save yourself the trouble and embarrassment! Just pulse them in a food processor a few times while they are still wet.

Chickpeas absorb so much water.

Once the grains, seeds and legumes are dry, it’s time to make flour! Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions on your mill grinder. For mine, I put the grains in the feeder, I push a button and that’s it! It’s a very loud machine though. Every time I turn it on, I feel like I’m at the airport standing next to an aircraft getting ready for takeoff. But it’s worth it, even if the neighbors might not think so.

How to soak grains

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Now that we’ve determined that grains, seeds and legumes should be soaked before consumption, in order to start pre-digesting and neutralizing most harmful components, I thought it would only make sense to show you how it’s done.

First, place what you want to soak in large bowls. From what I’ve been reading on the subject, it seems soaking in water only is not enough. A good rule of thumb seems to be to use 2 Tablespoons of an acid medium, per cup of grain. I use lemon juice, but I understand there are many other options out there, like lime juice and vinegar. Once you have your acid, cover with water. I’m not exactly sure about the quantity, but I cover the grains and then some, almost filling my bowls. Soaking properly takes 24 hours, so make sure you plan your recipes ahead.

From left to right, I am soaking millet, brown rice and chickpeas.

And that is how I soak. I have also read some very interesting things, that I’ll be happy to share with you. This scientist keeps the soaking liquid from his brown rice and reuses a portion of it everytime he soaks rice. Apparently, this process helps to get rid of even more phytic acid. I don’t understand all the details, but it seems brown rice contains phytase, an enzyme that actually degrades phytic acid, and by keeping the liquid it was soaked in, it helps cultivate microorganisms that make their own phytase. Which makes me wonder… Would keeping soaking liquid from other grains work the same way? Could you add some of the soaking liquid from brown rice to help break down phytic acid in other grains?

I understand also that it is possible to soak the flour directly, instead of the grain, like described here. I have never tried this method, mainly because I’m more comfortable with soaking grains only once a week when I make flour, instead of planning everything I want to bake at least 24 hours ahead of time. I also can’t help thinking it is odd to use the actual soaking liquid in your recipe…

The harmful effects of gluten

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Celiac disease is the worst extreme of gluten sensitivity. But just because you don’t have Celiac disease doesn’t mean that you are safe from  other harmful effects of wheat and gluten. It is estimated that at least 20% of the world population has some form or another of gluten intolerance and most are not even aware of it.

Why is that? Mainly because it’s hard to diagnose. Harmful effects include fatigue and digestive problems. And this may sound weird, but  it can be hard to determine that you have digestive issues if you’ve had them all your life and have no idea what “normal” feels like. The only way to really tell is to not eat gluten and see if you feel better.

However, not eating gluten doesn’t solve everything. Grains in general seem to have a lot of nasty things in them that we shouldn’t eat.  That’s just their natural defenses. Did you know that before mass production and food processing (“quick rise” dough), everyone used to soak their grains before eating them. They didn’t do this just for fun… it had a purpose: removing lectins, phytic acid and partially breaking down gluten. Soaking is basically a way to pre-digest your food, because humans aren’t pure herbivores and our digestive system isn’t made to deal with grains. Not yet anyway… In the scheme of things, humans have been on a hunter/gatherer diet for much, much longer than they have been eating grains and we simply have not yet adapted.

From my understanding, lectins seem to affect the body much like gluten, causing digestive disorders and drawing an auto immune response. They’ve been associated with diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s, colitis, thyroiditis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and arthritis. Phytic acid acts as an anti-nutrient. It binds with minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium, preventing the body from absorbing all that goodness.

I think the healthiest diet would be one without any grains. That way, we avoid all this talk of gluten, phytic acid and lectins altogether  and we are forced to eat more vegetables as filler. However, I do agree it is hard to give up all baked goods, but it certainly seems a good idea to limit them.

My point is, if like me, you don’t want to give up all grains, you need to learn to prepare them correctly so you get the benefits  from them and as little of the drawbacks as possible. Soaking or fermenting grains, seeds and legumes largely neutralizes their harmful components and it is extremely important to do it, just like our ancestors used to.

Call me crazy, but we give up a technique used for thousands of years and we drastically increase the amount of grains in our diet and
suddenly all these new diseases come out of nowhere.

Again, I’m not a biologist or nutritionist, I’ve just read a lot on gluten and the above is a mere summary of what I have learned. Here are some of the wonderful blogs and studies that I’ve been reading, to condense the above information (if the subject interests you, I strongly recommend taking a look at those):

The Dark Side of Wheat

Whole Health Source

The Lowdown on Lectins

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