COVID-19: 5 Steps To Make Some Lemonade Of It ALL!

Amid a pandemic like COVID-19, the hysteria seems to build and change by the hour.  Businesses are shut, so are many workplaces and offices.  Gyms, malls, anything even slightly optional, not happening.  We don’t know when things will return to normal but the world isn’t ending either.  In fact, there are some real positives for our lifestyle and our health that can come from all this disruption.

Positives?  From COVID-19?  Yes.  The disruptions are forced upon us, but everyone’s at the same place.  Let’s work it.  Here’s where I see the lemonade from “sheltering in place”:

Everyone. Slows. Down.

Less pressure to get all the errands done and on time.  Indeed, none of us can “do it all,” because so much of “it” has been cancelled!  There is also no rushed commute, no traffic snarls, no morning scramble to get kids to school, no mad dash after work to meet friends or get home to make dinner, and fewer errands to run.

Avoid Going Nuts & Enjoy The Extra Time 

It’s time to get to things you’ve been putting off – especially the “me” things that help clear our heads and bust our anxiety.  Some options to consider: 

  • Move it!   No marathons, just get out and walk.  It’s still OK, even if you’re under “shelter-in-place” orders.  You’re not under house arrest, so get on your sneakers and walk as briskly as you can, staying at least 6 feet from others.  About 100 steps a minute – done outside or inside – is considered a “brisk” pace and that’ll get you a mile for every 20 minutes of walking.  Or ride a bike, dance to a video, or do online yoga!  Exercise is well-known as a great mood lifter. It clears your head, gives you a mental boost, and makes life more manageable.  Make it part of your “me” time.  About that marathon though, check out this story of a guy in France who ran the distance of a marathon on his 23-foot balcony!
  • Give yourself a 30-minute “organizing” task. The task may take longer, but spend 30 minutes a day doing it.  That might be de-cluttering your home office desk (the bane of my existence), cleaning out a closet, gathering clothes and knick-knacks to donate, or going through the pantry to throw out expired condiments and food.  You can do it at a leisurely pace and end up with so much extra room!
  • Do fun stuff. Got a hobby you never seem to have time to do?  It’s time, and make it a priority.  Aim for an hour a day here, too.  I hope you make it a habit you’ll continue, even after this all passes.
  • Family meals are back!  Make these a priority, too, and make them last at least 30 minutes.  No technology at the table, just re-acquaint with conversation and socializing.  Some of the best memories of my childhood were sitting around the dinner table with parents and grandparents.  We’d talk about everything: the meal, friends, goals, you name it, and everyone was welcome to participate.  To me, it’s what a family meal should be, but make your own family meal style you’ll enjoy.
  • Rediscover the joy of cooking!  It’s WAY more enjoyable when you’re not pressured.  You can finally get to making those recipes you’ve collected but never got around to trying.  No cookbooks? No problem.  There are tons of great sites online.  Try www.beefitswhatsfordinner for starters.  It’s my go-to resource for all things beef, and their recipes are excellent and don’t require a degree from Le Cordon Bleu.    Check out Dr. Keith’s Pot Roast recipe.  I’d never cooked one before and adapted a NY Times recipe.  Turned out to be lean and the best pot roast I’d ever eaten!  The prep doesn’t take very long, you just have to be home for a few hours.  And since you’re home anyway, enjoy the aroma and eat the reward – and it stretches for more than one meal!

Chocolate Geeks! Have You Tried These Delicious Artisan Bars?

I’ve loved chocolate – dark chocolate – ever since I can remember.  As a little kid my dad would whisper to me, “Hey, you want some “bittersweet?” Then he’d lead me to his workshop in the basement and share a few bites of the dark stuff.   

Now I find out I was born on National Dark Chocolate Day (February 1), and suddenly it all makes sense: my affinity for good chocolate was genetically determined.  Rather than fight it, I embrace it.    

My partner loves chocolate, too, and we’ve assembled our own list of artisan chocolatiers in Paris that make for a great 3- or 4-day walking tour, structured so we log 7-9 miles a day. 

He likes truffles and filled chocolates, but I head straight for bars, with 70% cocoa content as a minimum.  At that level, quality really shows its hand.  Low quality beans can be disguised when a bar is only 30% chocolate and has lots of sweetness and flavors added.  At 70% or 80%, the cards are on the table.

Artisan Chocolate: A Kinship With Wine

Artisan chocolate bars are like wine.  Each has a taste all its own, influenced by many factors:

  • Single variety from a single plantation
  • Blend of beans
  • Method of fermenting, roasting, and processing
  • Soil, weather, location

Tasting points: Yes, it tastes “chocolatey” but there’s so much more to an artisan bar.  Some of the tasting notes you’ll find: coffee, “red fruit” (think raspberries and cherries), spices, and even floral notes.  Within these taste groups there can be specifics.  Some tasters will report notes of honey, vanilla (even though no vanilla was added), smoky or oaky notes, tangerine or grapefruit, etc.  I’ve even found hints of olives and green bananas. 

Bars also come with additions, like nuts, dried fruits, nougat and more. I’m paying a premium for the chocolate, so hold the groceries, thanks. Spices and herbs, like cinnamon, smoked paprika, and turmeric, and infusions like Earl grey tea are fantastic when done well. 

Wanting to track my favorite bars, their flavors, and notes about them, I started tracking them by making a list of each bar, “rating them from 1-100, and providing short descriptions for myself so I’d remember whether I wanted a repeat if I saw them again. 

The list now contains hundreds of domestic and international bars, it’s 42 pages long (single spaced) and nearing 20,000 words as of this posting. 

I was planning on listing my current favorite bars when New York Times food writer, chef, and author Melissa Clark had the same idea.  I discovered we liked some of the same bars.  She has a fabulous palate and I love her articles, but I know I’ve probably tasted more artisan bars. 

A FEW of My Favorite Brands & Bars:

Chocolate Bonnat: My all-around go-to brand for outstanding chocolate bars, especially the “Haciendas El Rosario” (75%) bar.  Real roasted flavor and aroma, a bit smoky, typical of Venezuelan cocoa.  The 75% Porcelana and Chuao bars are superb — and expensive. 

Pralus: A French maker, most bars are 75% but milk chocolate lovers have options, too.  My favorites here are the Indonesie bar for its woodsy, chocolatey, and intense flavors.  Traditional French roasting method makes it seem richer than a typical 75% bar.  The Chuao and Porcelana bars, two of their “Grand Crus”, are top line favorites, when I can find them. 

 

Chapon:  Like Bonnat, this is another chocolatier who nails it every time.  I first bought it in Paris and the link is to his online shop.  Not cheap, but a chocolate nerd would love it.  I’ve loved all the dark bars I’ve tried.  Most bars have only two ingredients: cocoa paste (ground beans) and sugar.  Has a good “snap” and intense cocoa flavor and aroma.  Favorites: Venezuela Rio Caribe, the Chuao bar (notes of hazelnuts and figs) and the Cuba bar (notes of coffee, caramel, and vanilla).  The latter two are among this line’s  “Cocoa Rare” bars, using exclusive, high quality beans.

Domestic Artisan Chocolatiers, Too! 

Right here in New York City is MarieBelle Chocolate!  I’ve written about the founder, Maribel Lieberman, before.  A native of Honduras, she uses primarily beans from there and deals directly with cocoa growers, especially women, helping them grow their businesses and giving them a US market.  My favorite is the 70% bar sweetened only with milk powder.  It makes for a VERY creamy bar, yet very intense as well.  No added sugar and actually has some protein and calcium!  You’ll either like it or not, but taste it more than once.  Believe me, it grows on you and it’s worth it. 

Arete: I’ve had chocolate from this Tennessee maker before, (their India bar is great) but I just tasted their 709% bar made with Tennessee sour mash whisky and it’s a winner.  The cocoa butter added to the cocoa bean paste is infused with the whisky.  No bitterness at all, it has notes of caramel and vanilla along with the whisky and it’s very friendly to the palate.  I’ll get it whenever I find it.  Note: the maker’s website sells their bars but as of press time their sold out of a lot. 

Without going to Paris, some great online sources for artisan brands:

Chocosphere – Great online source for artisan chocolate, carries a lot of brands.

Barandcocoa.com  Another source online, not cheap but it’s there when you need them and they also have a fairly broad variety.

And the best…Chocolate Covered: UNBELIEVABLE variety — over 1000 different bars in this quirky, small small shop in San Francisco.  It’s my go-to place whenever I’m in town and I always find bars I haven’t tried.  Jack Epstein is the owner and a very nice guy.  If you tell him “Keith from New York” sent you, he’ll know exactly who you mean.

CHOCOHOLICS REJOICE! It’s Healthy(ish)! Here’s the Evidence!

I love chocolate, particularly dark chocolate.  I make no apologies, and the more I learn about chocolate and the cocoa bean, the more I realize no apologies are needed.  It’s no joke, cocoa has health benefits.  Indeed, if I ruled the world, dark chocolate would be a deductible medical expense. 

Perhaps the science isn’t quite sufficient to justify chocolate as a deductible medical expense, but it ain’t junk food either.  There’s enough info on Theobroma cacao to warrant treating it with respect.  

What Makes Chocolate “Healthy-ish”?

Chocolate is loaded with antioxidants.  It contains flavonoids, a group of phytochemicals with anti-inflammatory powers and benefits for the immune system.  There are several subgroups of flavonoids, such as anthocyanidins that give foods like Concord grapes and red cabbage their purple color, and flavones, found in celery and bell peppers.  It’s the  flavanols however, that give chocolate (and other foods like tea and blueberries) it’s healthful properties.

So, What’s Chocolate’s Impact On Health?

Improved blood flow: This review of the research studying the combination of eating cocoa flavanols and doing aerobic exercise improved cardiovascular risk factors and vascular function (read: improved blood flow).  Cocoa helps reduce blood pressure by relaxing the walls of the blood vessels, improving blood flow, not only to the heart, but also to the gray matter of the brain.  This doesn’t mean eating a candy bar will make you a genius, but there may be bennies from eating some dark chocolate regularly.

Cholesterol benefits: Cocoa consumption seems to raise the HDL cholesterol (the good form) and reduce the “LDL cholesterol” (the bad one you want less of).  It works best when your total cholesterol levels are high.

Reduces “oxidative stress”: In a just-published systematic review of 48 studies on cocoa, the researchers found that cocoa consumption “plays an important role in the human metabolic pathway through reducing oxidative stress.”  Oh, bring it on.  

What’s oxidative stress?  It’s caused by “free radicals”.  Free radicals in your body can “nick” or damage the cells in arterial walls, making it easy for plaques to adhere and build up, clogging arteries. Cocoa consumption seems to help prevent free radicals from forming.  Ever taste rancid oil or nuts?  You’re tasting “oxidized” food damaged by free radicals.

Adapted from Tuenter, et al.

In the Mood

In this review of studies that looked at chocolate, mood, and cognition, the authors developed a “mood pyramid”.  They placed more general mood benefits from the flavanols at the bottom, since these are benefits associated with flavanols in other foods as well.  Secondary mood benefits appear to come from the caffeine-theobromine combination in chocolate. 

More specific is a possible dopamine effect from a substance in chocolate called salsolinol.  This is emerging research, but the hypothesis is that salsolinol may play a role in the impact of chocolate on mood.  Just how much chocolate you’d need to eat is still unclear. 

The Fine Print

Yes, there is some.  Some of the research found benefits from low intakes of chocolate, as little as 7.5 grams.  Other studies used significantly more however, up to 100 grams a day and produced good results.  (How do I sign up?)

These cocoa flavanols are NOT present in all chocolate foods.  Read labels: if it says, “cocoa processed with alkali” you can pretty much forget getting any flavanols.  This form of cocoa is also known as “Dutch-processed”.  The process makes cocoa appear darker (see photo) and taste a tad less acidic but it blows the antioxidant content to smithereens.  Some chefs and bakers prefer this type of cocoa for recipes.  I do not.  Give me the lighter powder on the right.  I like my flavanols, thanks.

Chocolate isn’t calorie-free.  Solid bars have about 150-170 calories per ounce.  I keep it to a max of 2 ounces a day, but an ounce of good chocolate, at 170 calories, makes for a rich snack or even a lower-calorie dessert.  Fair enough.  Cocoa powder however, is low in calories and the most concentrated source of cocoa flavanols, so use it to make your own hot chocolate.  I sweeten with stevia or a no-cal sweetener to minimize added sugar calories, and often add some cinnamon or other spice (smoked paprika is a favorite of mine).   

Get a high — in percent cocoa.  The most benefits are seen with chocolate that has at least 70% cocoa solids.  Not a problem for me, but it takes getting used to.  Go gradually!

Foodies! Poilane’s Famous Sourdough & My Tour of the Original Brick Ovens!

This post is for foodies, so be warned.  None of my usual busting of topical nutrition myths and misperceptions.  This EdibleRx post is about fun, flavor, and enjoyment of a food I love. 

I love artisan bread.  I don’t scarf it down indiscriminately, but I love it.  I do make bread, and as a native of San Francisco, I have a special affection for SF sourdough.  Then I visited Poilane.

Poilane is a famous boulangerie in Paris, and known particularly for its huge loaves of sourdough, complete with signature “P”.  It’s made in huge round loaves with an intoxicating aroma, but they’re difficult to haul in luggage.  Then I heard that Apollonia Poilane, the third-generation owner and author of Poilane, a delightful book with the shop’s recipes, would be in New York doing a book signing.  Loaves of her sourdough would be for sale at the signing, so I was all in. 

The book and the bread weren’t in though – both had sold out before the event!  No mystery: both are fabulous.  Apollonia’s conversational writing style makes you feel that she’s right there with you.  With a forward by Alice Waters and endorsements by luminaries like Ina Garten (“The Barefoot Contessa”), I couldn’t wait to get this book.

At a second signing a few days later, we were first in line for a book and a loaf, and had an absolutely wonderful, lengthy chat with Apollonia.  We’d mentioned we’d be in Paris a few months later and she invited us to visit her at the shop that started it all and even tour the basement where the ovens are that make that fabulous bread.

The Poilane Story

We were put in touch with Genevieve, who’s worked for the family for over 20 years and who arranged our visit for us.   She explained that the family business was started by Apollonia’s grandfather in 1932.  That’s when he developed his sourdough starter, or “mother”, and all the sourdough starter used since descended from that first batch.  Every day, a little of the dough from each batch is saved as starter for the next.

Apollonia’s father eventually took over the business, but Poilane’s reputation was growing and the small shop on the Left Bank couldn’t meet the demand for Poilane’s bread and rolls.  To scale up production, Mr. Poilane built the “Manufacture”, on the outskirts of Paris.  Despite larger-scale output, every loaf of sourdough is still made by hand from some of that original starter culture. 

Tragically, both of Apollonia’s parents were killed in a helicopter crash, forcing her to step up as CEO at the age of 19, while a student at Harvard. Dealing with her parents’ death and becoming head of the family company was, Apollonia admits, a strain, with added pressure to uphold Poilane’s reputation for outstanding quality. To Apolonia’s credit, she’s managed to maintain the famous hand-made, artisan quality of Poilane bread – and the deliciousness of the taste – yet still meet production demands. 

“Sourdough Central”:                          Poilane’s Original Brick Ovens

Apollonia brought us down the steep circular stairs, where we observed the brick ovens which, other than making needed repairs over the years, are pretty much the way they were in 1932.  They operate round the clock, with each loaf shaped by hand, by gifted artisans who know the exact size each loaf should be.  There’s a scale, but it’s seldom used by Poilane’s experts.  Everything for the shop is made there, with the Manufacture supplying orders for the rest of France.  (They do ship worldwide, and sourdough keeps well. Order here!)

Apollonia includes the recipe for her family’s sourdough in her book, Poilane, but I have to admit, even though I love baking bread (by hand – I like kneading it!), the thought of trying to make the Poilane recipe is intimidating.  She reassured me, “It’ll be different, because it’s your starter, not ours, but ours has been evolving for over 80 years.”  Fair enough.  I also confessed to favoring it over my beloved San Francisco sourdough, but she reminded me SF sourdough is a different thing.  Makes sense.

Taming a Big Round Loaf of Sourdough

Apolonia’s spot-on advice for efficiently dividing the huge loaf:

  1. Stand the round loaf on its edge.
  2. Hold it with your hand just off center.
  3. Slice straight down the middle to form two half-loaves.
  4. Place each half cut-side-down and slice in half from the top, making 4 “quarter-loaves.”
  5. Each quarter can then be sliced however you choose.

I wrapped three quarter-loaves in plastic wrap and placed into freezer bags, keeping one to use right away.  THIS loaf defines why bread is the staff of life. 

There IS a Better Way To Make Toast

Huh?  Sounds like instructions for boiling water?  Wait – Apollonia advises toasting Poilane’s sourdough under the broiler on one side only.  It gives you the crunch of toast but also the chewiness of the softer side.  I’m a convert.  Spread with butter if you like (I even like it plain, for the taste of the sourdough).  What kind of cheese is best for toasting under the broiler?  Without hesitating, Apollonia replied, “Oh, anything that melts!” 

Works for me.

Factoid: There is a London branch of Poilane, but the starter is still from the original.  Apollonia’s father took some of the starter on the “Chunnel” train from London to Paris, to make sure that Londoners would be eating sourdough that came from the original starter culture, just as Parisians do!

Big Apple Diversity: More Here Than Meets The Eye

Four apples that look alike, but they’re four different varieties – and they taste different.

When people say “I don’t really like apples” my reaction is that there are dozens of varieties, how many have they really tried?

The four varieties here – Evercrisp, Koru, Ruby Frost, and Snap Dragon, are all grown in New York State.  Disclosure: These apples were provided by Yes! Apples. They did not ask me to write this and I’m wearing both my food-critic/foodie hat and my nutritionist hat, so here goes.

Since they looked pretty similar, I expected them to taste fairly similar.  Au contraire.  The only commonality: crispness.  Nothing mushy here. 

Overall, these were four outstanding apple varieties, none of which I’d tasted before.  Quick review of each:

Evercrisp: More like “supercrisp”—solid, firm and with an intense, flavor, almost like apple extract had been added to it.  To be fair, the Evercrisp I tasted also had a “sugar core” — that almost clear, icy-looking appearance in the flesh that signifies a concentration of natural sweetness.  Any apple can have this, and I was the lucky taster here.

Koru: I’ve written about this apple before – when I first tasted it at the New York Produce Show.  Sweet, tart but not astringent, and the smaller core gives you a little more edible portion – and less to waste.  All good by me.

Ruby Frost: A good snap when biting into it, this one seemed to have more wine notes to it.  I’m no wine connoisseur, but I’d say it was more Riesling than burgundy, perhaps due to the sweetness.  I see this one as a sophisticated apple, if you can imagine such a thing. 

Snap Dragon:  This one was sweet and tart and almost like it was injected with extra apple flavor.  Take apple juice and heat it like you’re reducing it just a bit to concentrate the flavor.    

For me, the Evercrisp wins by a hair, but I’d eat each one of these again in a heartbeat.  I don’t like all apples.  Give me a Rome apple and it’ll sit there until I die.  They’re just not an eating apple.  Both Red and Golden delicious are OK, but apples that are crisp, tart and sweet win me over.  On the other hand, if I see any of the four varieties noted above in my local market, I’m grabbing them, and don’t get in my way.

An Apple A Day? Make It 2 & Lower Your Cholesterol

Speaking of heartbeats, there’s a new study out on the bennies of eating 2 apples a day.  All subjects were borderline overweight, with BMIs just over 25, and had mildly elevated cholesterol levels.  Two groups, eating either two whole apples a day (about 12 ounces of edible apple, with skin but without the core) or a control group drinking the same number of calories as apple juice, for 8 weeks.  Then there was a 4-week “washout period” and each group traded interventions.  That is, the apple eaters now got the juice and the hjuice drinkers now had the apples.

When the whole apples were eaten, total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” one) declined significantly, not a huge drop, but about 5 percent each.  That’s ain’t shabby, for just eating more fruit. 

It’s not clear if the difference happened because of the apples’ high content of pro-anthocyanidins (antioxidant compounds in the skins of apples) or because the whole apple also has loads of good prebiotic fiber, or some combination of those two factors.  That’s for the scientists to figure out in additional research.  Consumers (and those of us who eat) just need to know that eating apples may help steer your health in a good direction. 

Wearing my registered dietitian-nutritionist hat, I also like that eating apples — or any fruit — more often, is likely to squeeze out some of the less nutritious foods you might otherwise have eaten.  It’s not just about eating a great food, it’s about using it to replace a not-so-great food.

A few caveats here: Most people don’t want to commit to eating two apples a day forever.  I wouldn’t either.  And this study used a single variety of apple, called “Renetta Canada”, like those pictured here, so the proanthocyanidin content could be consistent.  That said, most apples are good sources of these compounds, whether you eat them with the skin (personal favorite) or without. 

Cut-To-The-Chase Take-away

Most people need to eat more fruits and veggies anyway, so just count this latest study as more ammunition in favor of doing so.  Eat whatever fruits you like but eat them DAILY!  And mix it up whenever possible – they all have their diverse benefits – and flavors!

7 Nutrition Myths These Dietitians Are Busting

When people learn I’m a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), they almost immediately start venting their frustrations about food issues. “Every day it’s another thing you can’t do or eat.  One day a food is good for you, the next day it’s bad for you.”  Since confused consumers make no changes, I always try to bust their myths and misinformation.

While consumers may be confused about food fads, RDNs are not.  They’re fed up with them.  They’re trained to spot hype, fads, and myths around a blind corner and it annoys them to no end. I asked some RDNs who have particularly good communications skills to tell me which popular nutrition fads really grind at them.  Here’s what they said:

Carbo-phobia!

Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, said straight up, “I wish people would stop thinking carbs are the devil.”  She’s had it with a near universal demonizing of these essential macros. 

Sure, most people eat too much added sugar, but she’s right that all carbs seem to be lumped together, whether it’s whole wheat bread or soda.  “Today it’s keto, yesterday it was Paleo, so many others before,” she said.  “I’m tired of all the iterations of high-protein, restricted carbs.”

Plant “Milk” Deserves No Halo

Nutritionally, plant-based diary alternatives just can’t hold a candle to the nutrition in real milk, according to Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, FADN, professor of nutrition at Boston University and the host of the hit health and wellness podcast, SpotOn! In addition to being a dynamite protein source, “Cow’s milk is chock full of vitamin D, calcium, and potassium, three nutrients that many Americans are falling short of in their diets.”  Dairy alternatives only have these nutrients if they’re added, and they often aren’t.  Unfortunately, says Salge Blake, “plant-based milks may also contain added sugars, adding calories and no additional nutrition to your glass.” 

Salge Blake also sees the affordability of real milk as a win-win.  “When it comes to your wallet, plant-based milks can be at least twice the price of cow’s milk.  For the nutrients and the money per gulp, you can’t beat low fat or skim dairy milk.”  If you’re allergic or vegan, soy is the closest alternative.  Be prepared to pay though.

Stop Kicking The Canned Foods!

Shari Steinbach, MS, RDN, spent years working directly with consumers as a retail dietitian in supermarkets, is fed up with canned foods getting dissed when they offer so many advantages:

  • Sustainability: “90% of cans are recycled and they can be recycled indefinitely.” Linings are safe, with 90% containing none of the controversial BPA.
  • Convenience: They have a long shelf life and that helps prevent wasted food and wasted food dollars.
  • Nutrition: “You can cut 40% of the sodium in canned beans and veggies just by rinsing and draining them,” Steinbach says. Since 9 in 10 people don’t eat enough vegetables, “Canned beans and tomatoes count,” towards scoring enough of this critical food group, and are a, “convenient, nutritious way to balance your diet.”

Want her recipe for quick, veggie-loaded, chili using canned ingredients?  “Here’s a favorite simple chili recipe that I made this week”:

  1. Brown 1 pound of lean ground beef;
  2. Drain and add 2 cans of chili-seasoned beans and 2 cans of undrained diced tomatoes.
  3. Season to taste with cumin or chili powder. “Serve with a green salad and whole grain crackers. Enjoy!”

Don’t Panic If It’s Not Organic

That’s advice from Leslie Bonci, MS, RDN Owner of Active Eating Advice, who is fed up with food elitism.  I see her point.  I spent decades working with low-income families who will never be able to afford organic food.  They shouldn’t worry.  They can still put delicious, nutritious food on the table. 

“What do we even mean when we say clean?” Bonci says, because “clean eating” has no definition.  That leaves every definition up to whomever is spewing it and that’s a perfect recipe for consumer confusion, fear, and doubt.  Instead, Bonci favors creating “an enabled table where foods of all price points have a place.”

White Foods Are Bright Foods!

Liz Ward, MS, RDN, Author of Better is the New Perfect is bugged by all the attention given to putting “only the most colorful fruits and vegetables on your plate.”  Forget colors, she says.  “Instead of worrying about what types of produce are “best,” simply include the types you like, no matter how pale,” Ward advises.  Besides, white, brown, and tan produce, such as mushrooms, cauliflower, potatoes, and bananas, are just as worthy as their brighter counterparts,” are loaded with nutrition.

“And while we’re at it, can we stop shaming starchy vegetables, such as corn, potatoes and peas? They are packed with nutrition and starch is a form of energy.”  It’s true, these foods are hugely important to so many food cultures and have sustained people for thousands of years.  Empty calories they most certainly are not. 

One Diet DOESN’T For Everyone?  Seriously?

“The nutrition belief that I hope goes to its final resting place in 2020 is that a single diet plan, or way of eating, is right for everyone,” declares food anthropologist and nutrition communications consultant Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN.  Looking ahead, Flipse feels personalized nutrition, not fad dieting, holds the most promise in the years ahead.  

Leah McGrath, MS, RDN, corporate dietitian for Ingles Supermarkets, couldn’t agree more.  “It seems like every year we have a new ‘hot’ diet,” she says.  “However, just like our fingerprints,  we should want to and  deserve to individualize our eating plans.” 

Flipse continued, “The one thing we’ve learned from the decades of fad diet trends we’ve endured is that none of them have delivered on what they promised because they have all overlooked our metabolic differences.”  They also tend to be extreme, which is probably why people burn out on them. 

Flipse admits that we still lack the scientific tools to allow us to tailor nutrition to each person’s needs.  Unfortunately, when consumer demand gets ahead of the science, charlatans see an opportunity to market all kinds of pseudo-scientific gimmicks.

Plant-Based Doesn’t Mean Plants-ONLY

This one is mine.  I’ve written about it before and everyone in 2019 seemed to be jumping on this bandwagon.  Thing is, there’s no universal definition of “plant-based!” 

What it DOESN’T mean is vegan.  Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t automatically guarantee your diet is balanced or healthful, either.  Living on soda and chips is a fully “plant-based”, vegan diet.  And it ain’t balanced.  A huge salad with 10 different veggies, some nuts, and crumbled feta or parmesan cheese or a couple of ounces of beef or salmon is not vegan – but it IS plant-based.  Flipse put it best, “I tell people if 50% or more of what they eat is plants, then they have a ‘plant-based’ diet.”

Foodie Alert! Finding New Fruits & Veggies At NY Produce Show

If you want to know what brings out the “food nerd” in this registered dietitian/nutritionist, watch me at the New York Produce Show and Conference.  It’s the “trade show” for growers and distributors of all kinds of produce from all over the country and I jump for joy to attend. 

It’s all fruits and vegetables, but you get a preview of what will be happening for consumers in the months ahead, including many of the new varieties of fruits and vegetables that either haven’t hit the market yet or that are readying for national distribution.  It also give me a chance to speak with the growers themselves and learn what they’re hearing from consumers. 

A few highlights (not compensated — these thoughts are my own):

Convenience Rules 

Consumers like fruits and veggies but they don’t’ want to prep, slice, or peel it.  They want turn-key food, and produce folks realized they had to get on this bandwagon if they were going to get, and keep, people interested in buying and eating fresh produce. 

Everywhere in the exhibit halls were display cases featuring pre-cut “ingredients” like cleaned and ready-to-roast cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, chopped onions and peppers and of all manner of “stringy” veggies (think zoodles but with both winter and summer squash varieties).   

Then there were the new ready-to-eat “finger foods”, mostly cut fruits but there were some surprises.  “Watermelon stix”?  That’s right – watermelon cut in the shape and size of thick French fries!  No knives needed and ready for kids (and adults) to grab from the fridge.  I tasted them and was amazed at how crisp they were.  This owes to the value of plant breeding – new varieties are bred to lose less water when they’re cut and maintain the firmness of the flesh but still have the sweetness you’d expect from ripe watermelon..  They’ll come in both the traditional red and the newer golden varieties, both seedless.

New Varieties of Old (and not-so-old) Favorites

Koru Apples

Developed in New Zealand, grown domestically in upstate New York.  Jim Allen of New York Apple Sales explained that the Koru apple hits the trifecta – it’s good raw, cooked, or baked –yet holds its crispness without turning mushy or “floury”.

I’m a die-hard apple lover and I put this one to the test.  Jim gave me a Koru to take home and I kept it in my backpack for four days to see how it would hold up. When I bit into it I found it amazingly crisp.  A tart, yet sweet flavor with no astringency.  Thumbs up.  Bonus: the Koru has a smaller core, so you can eat more of it with less waste.

They’re available from October through March.  If you see them in your market, grab them. 

 

Honey persimmon

People have strong feelings about persimmons, especially the Hachiya persimmon, shaped like a huge acorn. It’s tricky to eat because it tastes best when it’s really soft, but some people are turned off by the almost gelatinous texture.  Eat it before then, when it’s firm, and it’ll pucker your mouth.  The Fuyu persimmon can be eaten hard, like an apple (it’s one of my favorite fruits and I’ve written about it here). 

At the show I tasted a “Honey persimmon”, a Hachiya variety from Brandt Farms in Reedley, California, that looks much like a traditional Hachiya but doesn’t require softening to eat it.  It’s absolutely delicious.  Dave Maddux of Brandt Farms described it as having a lot of mango notes with a hint of cinnamon and he was spot on.  Production was minor this year but Maddux said 2020 the honey persimmon will be busting out nationwide.  They’re a winter fruit, full of nutrients and antioxidants like potassium, vitamin C and carotene, have fiber and add some great variety to the usual winter fruits.  Don’t pass this one up.  Since they look like the regular Hachiyas, the Honeys will be bagged and labeled.

Brandt Farms also grows the Fuyu persimmon – also known as a “Sharon fruit” and – full disclosure – he gave me a bag of them.  We sliced them crosswise, thinly, spread them with goat cheese, topped with another slice, then rolled the sides in chopped almonds.  Guests at our holiday party went crazy for them.  Thanks, Dave! 

Eating the Dragon

Dragon fruit has been around for years in markets but a big push is on by growers to make them more mainstream.  Dragon fruit is related to the cactus family and the outside betrays a sweet, white flesh inside, studded with tiny seeds.  The taste and texture might remind you of a kiwi-pear hybrid.  Most common are the red ones, but now they share space with a yellow variety.  Nutritionally, it’s got game: a reasonable source of calcium, good fiber, and antioxidants (the red fruit has the same pigment that gives beets their color).  The only drawback: they’re a bit pricey.  But hey, they’re definitely worth trying.  I did, and I liked them.   

 

Holidays, Eating, & Why Everyone Needs This “Drug”!

NO ONE wants to hear about health stuff this month.  Save that for January!  We want our “once-a-year-foods”, so stay out of the way or we’ll squash you like a grape!  And why not?  Food that’s around once a year should be eaten and enjoyed.  I’ll even join you.

But holidays can be challenging.  There are always more things to do than time in which to do them: buying gifts, heading to social occasions, hosting them, cooking foods you have only once a year (how did I cook that last year?), and on.  All on top of the usual stuff called “life.” 

Your “Dream Drug”

If you could invent a drug for this time of year, you’d probably want it to:

  • Burn excess calories
  • Act like a statin to lower your cholesterol
  • Improve your heart’s health
  • Lower your fasting blood glucose
  • Help you cut stress
  • Give you a “mood lift”
  • Improve your sleep
  • Add some lean muscle
  • Help you think more clearly

If you could patent this drug and market it, you’d be richer than Jeff Bezos, who would be begging you to sell it on Amazon.

This “drug” isn’t in a bottle.  It’s in your shoes: physical activity.  It does ALL the things listed above and you can get all those benefits.

Registered dietitian nutritionist, Leslie Bonci, should know, as the owner/founder of www.activeeatingadvice.com, she says, “Exercise is the gift that gives your body the lift it needs during the holidays.”  This isn’t just an opinion, either.  Read on.

Hot Off the Research Press: Thinking Won’t Help You Exercise, But Exercise Helps You Think

This study, just out, looked at the cognitive outcomes of four older adult groups: those who did moderate physical activity three days a week (walking or biking), ate a DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), those who did both and a control group that received only dietary education.

Best neurocognitive improvement at 1 year?  The group that did BOTH aerobic activity and the DASH eating style.  Second best was the aerobics-only group.  No surprise to Bonci.  “Getting moving helps to circulate blood to the brain,” she says.  

Why I Love This Study

  • The participants were at least 55 years old. If these folks can do it, it can be done by most people. 
  • The activity wasn’t extreme. No marathons, no sweating until exhaustion, just walking or stationary biking for 35 minutes, thrice weekly. Just move, then move on. 
  • DASH eating style? Also easy-peasy: It’s 2½ cups of fruits and veggies and two servings of dairy foods – what we should be doing anyway!   

Starting Moving

Baby steps here.  Registered dietitian Liz Ward’s philosophy says it all. “My mantra is that any movement is better than none to relieve tension and help you sleep better.”  Even her website is called “BetterIsTheNewPerfect

No time to do that walk?  Try doing it for half your lunch hour, so it doesn’t use any valuable “off” time.  FYI: a “brisk walk” is about 100 steps a minute.

This time of year, Ward admits her workouts may be shorter or even less frequent, but she knows the benefits go way beyond calorie-burning.  “I try to exercise as much as my schedule allows because physical activity is a huge stress-buster for me.”

Start “DASH-ing” 

Getting those 2½ cups (total) of fruits and veggies and two servings of dairy is easier than you think.  No specific fruits or vegetables here, and it’s cooked or raw, so choices are up to you.  For dairy, even some cheese is fine (an ounce per serving), but mix it up.  Examples:

  • Dairy: a cup of REAL milk on your cereal
  • Greek yogurt at breakfast, lunch, or for a snack or even dessert (with some of that fruit!).
  • Fill a pint plastic container (the kind that holds the won-ton soup form Chinese take-out) with any combo of fruits and veggies – that’s 4 servings right there – so you’re almost done for the day.

Cut to the Chase Bonus: Start now and you’re (literally) miles ahead of everyone else come New Years! 

15 Tips: Prevent G.E.R.D. From Being “Thanksgiving’s Revenge”

“National G.E.R.D. Awareness Week” is November 18-24 this year — a week BEFORE Thanksgiving, but maybe that’s good.  Being aware of this annoying condition can help you avoid it.

What’s “GERD”? It stands for “gastro-esophageal reflux disease”.  Back in the day, it was commonly known as “heartburn.”   It happens when the acid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus and it burns the hell out of it.  Your stomach is well-equipped to handle the stomach acids it produces to aid digestion, but the esophagus is much more sensitive.  When stomach acid gurgles up into the esophagus, it’s painful. 

A big Thanksgiving meal can trigger GERD even if you rarely experience heartburn.  Why?  Your stomach is only so big.  When you eat more than the stomach can handle, the sphincter muscle between the stomach and the esophagus may not close completely (see the graphic).  When stomach acid is released to start digestion in the stomach, some of that acid bubbles up and you feel a burning sensation. 

How to prevent GERD and Enjoy Your Thanksgiving Meal

The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD) put out this great graphic with 15 tips for avoiding GERD.  I’ll explain each one:

  1. Eat the meal earlier. It gives you more time to digest your food.  Having a big dinner in the the evening is a sure-fire way to get heartburn. 
  2. Serve (and eat) light appetizers. The Thanksgiving meal is an important tradition.  Save valuable tummy space and spend calories on the meal, instead of on typical nibbles.  A couple of bites of something and leave it at that.
  3. Stay active! Keeping moving helps your stomach empty itself a little sooner.  No marathons or vigorous exercise here, but any movement more than sitting down is a good idea.
  4. Don’t smoke. Add “heartburn irritant” to the list of reasons to avoid smoking.  Enough said.
  5. Nix the juice. The acid in fruit juice is much tamer than stomach acid, but can still bother the esophagus. Fruit nectar fares better, but if you must have juice, dilute it at least 1:1 with water.
  6. Limit the drinks. Alcohol is a known trigger for reflux.  It relaxes the esophageal sphincter, allowing stomach contents to back its way into the esophagus, but it can aggravate tender tissue on the way down, too.  Another trigger drink: regular coffee.  Keep it to decaf.
  7. Season lightly. This is individual, but some known irritants are things like chili peppers, tabasco, and hot sauces like salsa. They may not like you as much as you like them.
  8. Pass on deep-frying your turkey. I’d add, “and anything else.”  Fried foods trigger GERD symptoms in many folks, so be warned.  If you must eat them, think “taste” or a bite instead of a portion.
  9. Use smaller plates. It’s amazing how well this works.  If you’re int the habit of having seconds, try using a salad plate.  Then a second helping doesn’t have to mean overeating.
  10. Trade the soda for water. Bubbly stuff creates gas.  Gas puts upward pressure on that sphincter again and risks blowing acidic stomach contents into the esophagus. 
  11. Watch the desserts. Two reasons: 1) They’re heavy, just at the time your stomach is probably already full.  2) They’re usually really fatty (pie crust especially, but cake as well).  Best bet? Eat the filling in a small portion of pumpkin pie.  Hold the whipped cream and the a-la-mode.
  12. Skip the after-dinner mint. Peppermint oil – the flavoring – isn’t a “spice” but it’s just as irritating to the stomach and the esophagus.  It’s NOT a “digestive”. 
  13. SLOW DOWN! Make that salad plate-sized portion last at least 20 minutes – the amount of time it takes for your brain to register fullness, so don’t get there before the brain does!  Then ask yourself if you even want any more.  And remember, this is a time to get social.  Try and say something to everyone at the table.
  14. Stay awake. And upright.  People can feel comatose after a big meal (another reason to eat less).  Laying down after eating just makes it easier for stomach contents to back its way up into your esophagus and give you GERD symptoms.  Empty stomachs are better sleep companions.
  15. Talk to your doctor. Get relief!  There are medications available if you suffer from GERD symptoms frequently. 

Above all, may you enjoy the day, remember to be thankful.  My very best to you and your family.

No, I Don’t Care If Kids Eat Candy on Halloween

Letting kids loose on Halloween doesn’t have to mean all hell breaks loose afterwards.

Halloween is a once-a-year occasion.  I’m focused on what kids do the other 364 days of the year.  If they’re eating well on those other days, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting them enjoy Halloween!

Every year around this time I get a ton of questions from parents about what to “allow” kids to eat on Halloween, how much candy to let them collect and keep, and what kind of candy is “best” to give out on Halloween.

Sugar Shakedown

No, sugar won’t make them hyperactive.  They might have a burst of energy, but the whole “sugar-gives-them-a-buzz” thing has been completely dismissed.  The rigorous science just doesn’t show anything.  Actually, a high-sugar snack has even been shown to help keep you on-task.  I’m NOT encouraging more sugar.  It’s not angel food, but not devil’s food, and it’s not a new food, either.  Just keep it real.

Your Homework: Laying the Groundwork

Planning ahead is everything here.  Kids (and adults) don’t like sudden, unexpected changes, especially to their eating habits.  Here are a few tips to help things go smoothly on the big day:

  • Be real about how much you buy. You know how many kids typically visit you, so get enough for THEM.  Buy with an eye to having as few leftovers as possible.
  • If you’ve already bought the candy, let the kids know ahead of time about the plan for leftovers: share with neighbors, you’re bringing them into work for co-workers, making up a bag for a child who couldn’t Trick-or-Treat (a nice thing to do for a child who is ill), and so on.
  • Buy only the smallest portions of candy! No full-sized bars, just the little mini things.  That way even with leftover stuff, the treat is reduced to a bite, not a commitment.

Tricks Before Treats

The idea to reinforce to kids is to “take care of business” first, by spending calories on the foods we need.  If there’s anything left, have a treat and enjoy it.  That’s the eating style I want kids to have 364 days a year.

  • Keep only the “top 10%” – their absolute fave candies. The rest gets donated or shared with others.  Quickly – like, get it out of the house the next day. (Note: For me, candy corn got tossed first thing!  Never could stand the stuff, even as a kid!)
  • Make it social! Halloween is also about dressing up, hanging with friends, and walking the neighborhood. This applies to all holidays or occasions.  It helps them see food and eating in perspective.
  • Never make candy a “reward” for good behavior (save that for training the dog), but see it as a teachable moment. Candy is an “extra”, it provides mostly empty “discretionary calories” so treat it that way.  It’s something to have in a small amount AFTER the rest of needs are met.

“What Does the Research Say”?

Yes, someone actually did a study on whether seeing Michelle Obama’s face (versus other political women’s faces) might influence them to choose a box of raisins or a small name-brand candy bar.  Connecticut home.  Three years of Halloween.  Kids were directed randomly to either of two sides of the porch – one with Michelle Obama’s pic, the other side pics of other political women (Hillary, Ann Romney, or no photo) and asked if they wanted a box of raisins or a small candy bar.  Authors described the community as politically liberal.

Result: The kids on the Obama side were 19% more likely to choose the box of raisins than the candy.

Great, but there was no info on whether the kids then ATE the fruit.  After all, no food can be nutritious until you EAT it.  Ironically, the box of raisins is about the same calories as the small candy.

Cut-To-The-Chase-Nutrition Take-Away

Halloween can be a blast.  It should be.  It’s also over in a day so enjoy it fully.  On other days, it’s about getting what you need first: the fruits, veggies, whole grains and dairy foods FIRST.  Be active, FIRST.  Those are the tricks, before the treats.