Comfort Food Alert! 3 Top Nutritionists Share Theirs (No Kale Here!)

If there were EVER a time when we want comfort food, it’s now.  Sure, we want nutrition, but “in these challenging times” (getting overused!), we want what we know will make us feel better, even if just for a while.

What makes a food a “comfort food”? 

There’s no single comfort food; everyone has their own.  They can be specific (“my mother’s meatloaf”) but can also be a category of foods: “any kind of cheese.” 

How a food becomes a “comfort food” is as diverse as each person.  Registered dietitian-nutritionists (RDNs) like comfort food, too, so I asked some registered dietitian-nutritionists what their fave comfort foods are, and their responses might surprise you: 

Leslie Bonci has an arsenal of comfort foods.  “To me, comfort food is sense-surround with eye appeal, aroma, flavor and texture,” she said.  Her comfort foods range from spicy chili with crushed tortillas, to a bowl of pasta fagioli with crispy onions on top, or a season-specific pumpkin pie with a gingersnap-orange zest crust. 

Any time of year she’s up for sharp cheese, crispbread, pickles and grapes.  I’d bet the feature photo (courtesy of  Aliona Gumeniuk) would be VERY comfortable for Bonci!

Nicole Rodriguez believes whatever food you like can be worked into your healthy eating style (Go Nicole!).  “When I think comfort food, it has to be something unfailingly satisfying.  And for me, that’s a cheeseburger!  Combining beef, dairy, grains, and maybe just a smidge of vegetables (pickles and ketchup count, don’t they?), this American classic never fails to please.” 

Rodriguez doesn’t leave home for her comfort food, either.   “Instead of it being a restaurant indulgence, I prepare them at home with a side of roasted vegetables or a salad.”  She also has a hack for keeping the indulgence in check by keeping it all about the cheeseburger, not the fries.  “The fries have become an unnecessary afterthought.”   

 

Comfort Food Brings Memories

All of Barbara Baron’s comfort foods take her back to childhood and her Italian heritage, and family food experiences.  Like Bonci, Baron has several comfort foods.  “Shucking FRESH cranberry beans in their shells/pods and preparing them with green beans, garlic, olive oil and tomato sauce, as every good Italian dish starts.” 

That healthy “Holy Trinity” of garlic, EVOO, and tomato sauce pop up in the Swiss chard her mother made, “adding some cubed end chunks of Parmesan, if they were around.”  She loved how the cheese would remain firm on the inside but melted on the outside and she looked for these specially.  “It was like finding Waldo amid the Swiss Chard,” she said. 

Baron can go more indulgent for comfort food, too, noting, “Great family gatherings of making homemade potato gnocchi with my grandmother. When I see them on the restaurant menu it brings a smile to my face and a flood of memories of making these in my grandmother’s kitchen with my aunts and uncle.  It was a full-blown family affair!”

 

Eating For Comfort: What Does the Research Say?

Readers of this column know I like evidence.  Is there a health or emotional benefits from eating your comfort food? 

The evidence suggests some people get more benefit from comfort food than others do.  This paper reviewed the research on comfort food and concluded that people scoring higher on tests of emotional eating were more likely to find immediate benefit from comfort food.  Not surprising, but it’s normal to sometimes find yourself eating to feel better or cope with some stresses of life.  Most of us do that at least once in a while. 

No Comfort Food?  It Happens!

Not everyone heads to food when they need some TLC.  Some people do just the opposite – they turn away from food when stressed.  There seems to be a gender difference also. This study found that women experiencing stressful events such as the deaths of family or friends, relocation, or job changes are more likely to gain weight and see increases in body mass index (BMI).

This doesn’t mean that men don’t get stressed from life events, only that they may be less likely to head to food as a coping mechanism.  

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

The effect of comfort food is immediate, but not long-lasting.  If you find yourself overdoing the comfort food, it’s time to cultivate other ways to cope with everyday stress.    Developing “non-food” interests that give us satisfaction, is a must.  Physical activity gets those brain endorphins hopping too, making us feel a little (or a lot) better and more able to handle what comes our way (and burns off some of those comfort calories!), but hobbies, a hot bath, or spending some time playing with your pet are other examples.  Especially in “these challenging times” have as many varied ways as you can to push that comfort button.

A REALLY Plant-Based Meal — With Beef!

When people tell me “I don’t eat meat, I’m plant-based,” the implication is that plant-based diets can’t include meat, poultry, or fish.

They can!  “Plant-based” means only that a majority of the diet comes from plants.  Period.  That said, being “plant-based” tells nothing about the QUALITY of someone’s diet.  You can eat nothing but candy and soda and have a “plant-based diet.”  You can live on nothing but kale — a terrific food and all-plant — but both diets would be unbalanced.

Balanced: The Size That Matters  

If you want to eat a plant-based diet but also include meat, what’s the right portion?

Less than you think.  Figure 3- to 4-oz. of meat, poultry, or fish are definitely enough protein in any meal, because this amount provides about 28 grams of protein.  You’ll have several more grams from the grains, starches, and vegetables that balance the meal, bringing you well over the 30 grams of protein for the meal.  That’s definitely enough protein!

Why?  Because the body can’t utilize more than 30-35 grams at a time, so any extra will just be converted to energy or, if the meal has too many calories, stored in fat tissue.

This huge platter has 4-oz. of ribeye. It served one, and is not vegan, but TOTALLY plant-based!

I’m an omnivore, but I’m also a huge fan of produce (seriously, I can’t get enough veggies and fruit).  The sliced ribeye in the platter you see at the right was exactly 4-oz., half the weight of the ribeye.  It’s one way we make an expensive cut of beef go farther — as it should.  It also leaves plenty of space on your plate for the other foods we like and need and that balance the meal.

Being a Plant-Based Omnivore

I like simple and easy meals, but they have to taste good.  Here’s how I made this dish.  It’s a “guide” and it’s quite adaptable:

  • Take an 8-oz. ribeye, grill or fry it (I used a grill pan) to medium doneness (internal temperature of 145°F ). Let it rest for about 10 minutes.
  • Combine all the fresh veggies you like in a large bowl. Include a little fruit if you like (we do). This one is a platter of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and red pears.
  • Divide the salad among two platters.
  • Slice the ribeye into 1/4″ slices and put half the slices on each of the two platters.
  • Add a fresh herb (optional, but if they’re on hand, add them). I topped the platter with julienned broad-leaf thyme because it grows like a weed on my windowsill, but fresh mint or basil is just as delicious.
  • A teaspoon of grated Parmesan adds umami.
  • Drizzle with EVOO and balsamic vinegar, or your favorite dressing, but please don’t drown it. You want the flavors of the ingredients to shine through.

All the produce here came from our local farmers market this time, but use whatever you have.  It’s easy to substitute leftover chicken, deboned, or grilled fish.  Salmon works especially well, but I’ve also done this with canned salmon and sardines.  (Laugh if you must, but both are loaded with omega-3s, inexpensive, and great to have in the pantry!  I like them packed in water.)  

This simple recipe is just a template, but there are dozens more chef-developed, delicious recipes at: beefitswhatsfordinner.com.  The Mediterranean Beef & Salad Pita in the featured photo is one of them.  Takes 30 minutes and uses budget-friendly 80% lean  ground beef, or go even leaner with 95% ground beef.  Adapt it with your own touches! 

COVID-19 Got You Depressed? Could Probiotics Help?

Whether COVID-19 has you sheltering-in-place, quarantining, or just frustrated by not being able to have your usual life, lots of people seem a little down in the dumps, grumpy, and yes,  even “depressed”.  The “life sucks now” feelings are real, but different from true clinical depression, which can happen for no observable reason. 

Could “Bacteria” Improve Mood?

The right kind of bacteria – probiotics – just might help truly depressed people, even those who on antidepressant medication.  This just-published study reviewed clinical research on the impact probiotic supplements had on people formally diagnosed with clinical depression.  

Probiotics are what give Greek (& regular) yogurt that tangy taste. 

Probiotics are live healthy bacteria, found in cultured foods like yogurt, kimchi, and kefir.  These are different from PRE-biotics, which are various types of dietary fiber found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans.  Prebiotic fiber feeds the growth of probiotic bacteria in the gut.  

What The Results Showed

In the 7 studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the review, all found that probiotic supplementation “demonstrated a significant, quantitatively evident, decrease/improvement of symptoms and/or biochemically relevant measures of anxiety and/or depression for probiotic or combined prebiotic– probiotic use.”  Whether the studies used one strain of probiotics or multiple strains, the results showed improvement in reducing depression symptoms. 

Moreover, in one of the studies that also measured “quality of life”, it increased with supplementation but returned to baseline 8 weeks after the supplementation stopped.

Why Probiotics Helped

If something works, I always want to know WHY, and this paper suggests a mechanism for how probiotics might help depression.

The gut is known to be the center of our immune system, and when probiotics have been found to be useful, as they have with conditions like ulcerative colitis, it’s often because of their ability to reduce inflammation by suppressing the production of some annoying substances, called “cytokines”. 

The gut also is known to connect with the brain via the “gut-brain axis”, part of the central nervous system, so “food and mood”, or the notion that what’s happening in one’s GI tract could impact one’s emotional state has weight behind it.

The “Fine Print” 

It would be great to learn that just by having some yogurt, your mood would soar, but alas, reality must be acknowledged.  These studies looked at persons with diagnosed, measurable depression.  Those who got the probiotic supplements seemed to become less depressed, but those supplements contained higher doses of probiotics than you’d get from a cup of yogurt. 

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans & contains lots of probiotics, plus protein & fiber!

Probiotic foods and supplements may not be useful mood-boosters if you’re just having a down day, but there are plenty of reasons to eat foods that naturally contain probiotic bacteria, like these:

  • Yogurt, including Greek yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Tempeh
  • Miso
  • Kimchi

Look for “Live and Active Cultures” on yogurt and kefir labels, to be sure they contain useful amounts of probiotics. 

“Live & active cultures” guarantees a high amount of probiotic bacteria.

These being dairy foods, they also have a whole lot of essential nutrients we need, especially calcium and potassium, to help fill gaps in most people’s diets.

The main ingredient in kimchi is cabbage, and it’s fermented soybeans in tempeh, so they both have PRE-biotic fiber, too.  Heads up, if you’re sodium-sensitive: Miso and Kimchi can be loaded with sodium.  

Is there a down side to getting probiotic bacteria?   So far, there doesn’t seem to be, especially if you get them from food.  Getting some probiotics daily though, gives you the most benefit, and the study found this as well: depression returned when the probiotics stopped. 

Even if probiotic foods don’t lift your mood, you can definitely feel good about adding some healthy foods to your eating style!

Food Is Medicine…But Some Restrictions Apply

Did Hippocrates really say, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”?  Probably not, but he often gets the credit for it.  At any rate, using food for medicinal purposes has been done for years, by your doctor or registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN), or maybe grandma.  It’s also been the stuff of quackery and unproven hypotheses forever.  Elderberries, anyone?  They’re a good food, but there is no evidence they’ll cure COVID.  And we speak today of food, not supplements.

Quackery aside, here are some foods that have been used to treat various conditions:

  • Chicken soup! From Dr. Grandma, given for colds, flu, and “anytime you don’t feel good.” 
  • Prunes – the original “laxative.”
  • Milk – to calm an acid stomach.
  • Coffee and tea – both contain caffeine to jumpstart the morning (bonus: they’re both loaded with antioxidants)

These foods helped in acute conditions, but taking the next step, could food actually be “prescribed”, like medicine, to treat chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and stroke?  These diseases may not be diet-caused, but they’re all definitely diet-influenced. We know that eating an unbalanced diet long-term can eventually take a toll on health.  It’s also clear that a lifelong healthful diet reduces your risk for chronic conditions.

Credits: Junan Sonin, Sarah Kaiser, CC 2.0
https://www.flickr.com/photos/juhansonin/14406031184/in/photostream/

 

But…A “Prescribed Diet”?

By definition, it’s a diet that’s personalized for YOU with YOUR chronic condition.  Just as a medical diagnosis can require specific medication, diet-influenced chronic conditions require specific “diet prescriptions”. 

The idea of prescribed diets is gaining traction, because of emerging evidence that such diets can improve health outcomes AND lower health costs. 

This 2019 study looked at whether medically tailored meals for chronically ill persons would impact admissions to hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.  The meals were delivered in “ready-to-eat” form to persons with a variety of chronic conditions who also had various environmental or other barriers (social, income, inability to shop or cook for themselves), placing them at nutritional risk.  The meals were customized to the medical needs of each person, but also incorporated food preferences whenever possible.  

Results?  Huge.

After two years, those who received the medically tailored meals experienced:

  • Nearly HALF the hospital admissions.
  • 72% FEWER admissions to nursing facilities
  • Health care costs reduced by 16%.

Delivering tailored meals is costly, and not everyone needs or wants that approach.  In addition to medically tailored meals, a recent analysis in the British Medical Journal also noted other programs that take a broader approach in order to have a wider reach:

Medically Tailored Groceries

These are for people with chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, who can prepare their own food, but are food insecure.  Specific groceries items are customized by a nutrition professional, usually an RDN, and picked up by patients at a central location, such as a clinic or community center.

The results? 

  • Better adherence to medication.
  • Better blood glucose control in diabetics.
  • Better intake of fruits and vegetables, lower medical costs!

Photo credit: pxfuel.com

Produce Prescriptions

 

Sounds gimmicky but it’s solid.  Healthcare providers distribute vouchers or debit cards for free or discounted produce to food insecure persons with chronic conditions.  They redeem the vouchers at any store that accepts them.

The results? 

  • Better blood glucose control in diabetics.
  • Reduced excess weight, fewer antibiotics in children.
  • Better consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The “Catch”

Most of the research on prescribed diets isn’t very granular, so we don’t know exactly what’s producing these improvements.  Is it the total food package?  Individual foods?  Was it just because they were able to get, and eat, more fruits and vegetables?  Or more nutrient-rich protein foods? 

These unknowns can be problematic, because it opens the door for all manner of charlatans and quacks to tell you they “know” what foods you need to eat to prevent or treat these conditions.  In these programs, food was given out directly or vouchers were provided that limited purchases to the intended foods.  

What if you’re food secure but still have these chronic conditions, what are YOUR options for a ”prescribed diet”?

Credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) is your best option, and it’s provided by an RDN – not a trainer, coach, or “wellness expert”.  MNT from an RDN customize your dietary plans, focusing on YOUR foods for YOUR needs, taking into account your food preferences, your food culture, and food budget.  It’s not a new skill for RDNs – it’s exactly what they’ve ALWAYS done, and they have more training in the field than anyone.  Bonus: most insurance plans cover some amount of MNT.

And The Survey Says: COVID-19 Changed How We See, Eat, & View Food

During “This Challenging Time” may people’s usual food concerns gave way to more immediate priorities: stocking up on staples like proteins, milk, canned goods and the like.  (Count me in – I bake our bread and I’m one of those who found it hard to find yeast and flour.)   Right after sheltering-in-place (SIP) began, our attention went towards all things comfort: in our food, our home, our down time, everything.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducted their 2020 Food & Health Survey of adults, ages 18-80, in mid-April, during the pandemic.  More than 8 out of 10 of us changed how we ate and prepared food in response to COVID-19.  People under 35 made the most changes – but not all changes were good ones.

Here are other survey highlights about how we see food and health right now:

We’re eating better – or not

More than 1 in 5 say they’re eating healthier, but there’s another group, about 1 in 7, who felt they were making less healthy choices.

We’re cookin’!

About 3 in 5, were doing more cooking at home.  Not a surprise, since most restaurants were closed.  Grocery stores continued selling their prepared foods at a pretty good clip, however, so cooking at home still was still able to be avoided by some.

You can bet that people working from home and now forced to produce 3 meals a day, probably relied more on help from the prepared foods section of the supermarkets.  Supermarket sales in almost all sections of the store were way up.

Got kids?  You got snacking!

More than 3 in 5 (41%) parents with minor children were snacking more than they normally did, vs less than 3 in 10 parents with grown children.  With more kids at home all day, it figures that there will be more snacking going on, and parents serving snacks are probably more likely to join them. Even so, about 1 in 4 said they were now snacking multiple times each day.

What worries us more about food now? 

  • More than half had concerns about eating food away from home or eating food prepared outside the home. Roughly half of survey respondents were at least somewhat concerned about either eating away from home or food prepared away from home (take-out, restaurant deliveries, etc.).  This was somewhat more so for African-American and Hispanic consumers than for whites.
  • Put into simple language, people want to know if the person/persons who made this dish I brought home were careful about proper food safety when they made it.
  • “Food handling/food preparation related to risk of COVID-19” had never been asked in this annual survey, but it became the number 1 concern for consumers, knocking off the top 4 food safety concerns of 2019. On the home front, we’re also washing our fruits and vegetables more.

What worries us less?

  • Food-borne illnesses from bacteria.
  • Chemicals, carcinogens, and pesticides in food.

These were still concerns, but issues related to COVID-19 knocked them off most people’s “top concern” list.  It’s consistent with the huge increase in purchases of items like canned and frozen vegetables – foods that people know are safe and have a long shelf life.

Health vs. Weight: Which Matters to People More?

Health mattered a little more than weight but not much.  Most participants valued both equally, but women and overweight persons put slightly more priority on weight.

More “style” in our eating!

A consistent trend the past few years is following some form of eating style.  Nearly 3 in 5 persons reported trying some type of diet or eating style.  Top reason: to try and lose weight.

Top eating style for 2020?  Intermittent fasting.  It bumped last year’s “clean eating” from first place.  Keto/high fat dieting was third.

The survey offered hope, though. “Nearly 6 in 10 place more emphasis on their overall health now in comparison to how they made decisions a decade ago.”  Healthier weight will follow – another “two-fer”!

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

We CAN and DO make changes to how we eat – if we’re motivated.  Let’s not lose sight of that.  Instead of our motivation coming from fear, let it be wanting to feel better. And knowing we deserve that.

From 9 Top Nutritionists: Positive Take-Aways From COVID-19

In a very short time period, COVID-19 turned how we live upside down.  We’re suddenly living, eating, and shopping differently than perhaps ever before. Has all this impact been negative?  I spoke with 8 nationally-known registered dietitian-nutritionists to get their take on what they think are the POSITIVES that might come out of the current pandemic, what they’ve learned, and a few noted what they’d like to keep from the whole pandemic experience.

Newfound Respect for Some Pantry Standbys

Amy Myrdal Miller hopes people “appreciate the benefits of canned fruits, vegetables, and beans and frozen fruits and vegetables. For too long people have believed ‘fresh is best.’  This points out the reality that canned and frozen foods offer nutrition benefits and convenience.”  If the increased demand for canned and frozen foods is any indication, this appears to be happening.

Neva Cochran agreed, noting that consumers returned to these foods as well as beans, beef, pasta, and others, “that are often mis-characterized as not being healthy or nutritious.”  Since the onset of the pandemic, she continued, “Concerns about buying organic, meat-free, non-GMO, all-natural, no added hormones, antibiotic-free and gluten-free have taken a back seat when people are concerned that there may not be enough food.”

Gratitude was also expressed.  “I’ve never been more grateful for all these non-perishable options – and the farmers who bring them to my table,” said Nicole Rodriguez.  “Whether it’s a simple box of raisins with my daughter during ‘home school’ snack time, cottage cheese topped with a pre-portioned serving of cling peaches, or frozen berries heated up as a makeshift jam,” she said she has a deeper appreciation for fruits in all forms.  As do I, including fresh fruit!  (See my Cut-To-The-Chase Take-Away below for more!)

Isolation – The Good Part

Photo credit: Andrea Piacuadio, pexels.com

Some found appreciations that had nothing to do with food or nutrition.  Chris Mohr’s normal schedule has him on the road constantly.  Being grounded (literally!) has been an unexpectedly positive experience for him, his wife and their two daughters.  “I love the increased level of connection among us.  We’ve each grown closer because we’re not socializing, traveling for work or anything else.  And I will work really hard to keep that up once we are ‘released’ from our homes”.  Probably something we all might focus on.

Having a less structured schedule during isolation has allowed Karen Ansel some freedom.  She’s found that she can do things “at times of day that mimic my body’s natural energy flow instead of when I’m “supposed” to do them.  I’ve been spending a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to be productive at the wrong times of day.” While she realizes all this may change when isolation is relaxed, “normal” life resumes, she does want to maintain take some of this new-realization.  “I do plan to really try to follow my body’s internal energy cues as much as possible.” 

Teachable Moments

If your kids show an interest in cooking, all the at-home time is great for getting into the kitchen with them to practice.   Toby Amidor, author of numerous cookbooks, has found it’s allowed her to, “Cook with my kids in the kitchen and actually see how my girls can cook without me in the kitchen.”  She sees how much they’ve learned from their mom, adding, “Now we are focused on further developing their cooking skills into more complex dishes they want to learn to cook.”  Sounds like “teacher” and her students have both learned something.

Rosanne Rust loves that people are sharing more time with their families in general, but including in the kitchen. “Teaching the kids how to bake, or working together at home, is a win-win for both the parents and the children. Even if at times it seems stressful.”  Good point.  If you’re new to teaching your kids cooking skills, start with goof-proof, entry-level skills: boiling an egg, baking a potato, steaming a vegetable.  Baby steps here!

As a retail dietitian (as in supermarket), Leah McGrath thinks many have gained a new appreciation for how hard supermarkets and restaurants work to make sure there is food available to us.  “Perhaps we won’t forget to take a moment when we’re shopping for groceries or eating out to remember that with a kind word, a smile or, when appropriate, a generous tip.”  Active on social media (@InglesDietitian), she’s using the #QuarantineKitchen hashtag.  “I think many have surprised themselves with their culinary creativity and ingenious substitutions to make meals for themselves and their families.  Necessity is the mother of invention!”

Beyond teaching cooking skills, food has always been part of family culture, too.  Notably, our isolation has occurred during Easter and Passover periods.  Christine Rosenbloom sees this isolation as, “An opportunity for kids and families to learn to cook and bake.  Teaching kids family heritage through foods and sharing treasured recipes,” is something she recommends during all the enforced down time.

I hear that.  Growing up, we celebrated what we called “regular” Easter (the one recognized nationally) and “Greek” Easter (the Eastern Orthodox one, which usually falls on a different Sunday).  This year, I did my part by making this braided Easter bread, like my Greek grandmother made, pictured here. (I hope she’s lenient – I reduced the amount of anise seeds by half and added some nuts – personal preference!)   

Cut -To-The-Chase Take-Away:

I join my colleagues in valuing all those pantry staples people have forgotten or dismissed.  They are – and always were – safe and nutritious to eat.  BUT…SO IS FRESH PRODUCE! 

Moreover, farmers need your help!  Many are plowing under or discarding perfectly good crops because of lower demand by consumers too afraid to handle and purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. 

You CANNOT get COVID-19 from food.  Why?  I explain it to you backed by facts!) in a previous post here.  So, when you do shop, buy fresh, too.  Remember – farmers aren’t “first responders”, they’re CONSTANT responders, through all.

News Flash: Fresh Produce Is Safe To Eat!!!

When I hit the supermarket these days, I’m seeing canned and frozen vegetables and fruits flying off the shelves.  All good, because they’re shelf-stable and many folks are minimizing trips anywhere, including to the supermarket.  Yet the fresh produce section, loaded with colorful, delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, isn’t feeling the love. 

That’s a problem.  There seem to be concerns about buying and eating produce these days, especially if it’s sold in bulk, since other consumers might have handled it.  

Feel Good About Eating Fresh Produce

No reason in the least to avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables.  Yes, you need to wash it.  You’ve ALWAYS needed to wash it.  You DON’T need to wash it with anything special.  Here are 7 terrific tips, straight from the FDA website, for washing fruits and vegetables so you can eat them with confidence, :

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce.
  • If damage or bruising occurs before eating or handling, cut away the damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.
  • Rinse produce BEFORE you peel it, so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
  • Gently rub produce while holding under plain running water. There’s no need to use soap or a produce wash.
  • Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
  • Remove the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.

COVID-19 note: Your risk of getting it from food is slim to none.  Check This graphic from the University of Georgia Extension.  I love it because it tells you how you WON’T get COVID-19, and you won’t get it from food. 

Your stomach acid HATES this virus as much as you do.  It’s part of our body’s protective barrier.  Stomach acid has a very low pH (meaning it’s a strong acid) and the virus can’t survive that.  Plus, the virus needs to get to you through your respiratory tract, not your GI tract.  The tips on washing your produce however, still holds.  Consider it part of “best practices” on the home front.

 

Long before COVID-19, I wanted to be prudent and remove whatever dirt and such that might have accumulated on the skin.  In our home, we’re eating lots of root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes, especially now, because that’s what’s left in the farmers’ market, and since these veggies grow in the ground, it makes sense to give them a good scrubbing.  (Note, in the photo below there’s also kohlrabi and celery root on the left and right, respectively — other root veggies definitely worth trying!) I do the same for oranges and apples, too, though.  Food safety is not just a farmer’s responsibility, it’s mine and all of ours as well. 

Biggest Pandemic: 9 Out of 10 STILL Don’t Eat Enough Fruits & Veggies!

The latest from the 2020 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee established that average COMBINED intake of fruits and vegetables is just under 2½ cups a day, and that includes 100% fruit juice.  Specifically, average consumption of fruit is 0.9 cups a day of fruit and 1.4 cups of vegetables.  This accounts for all of it – including your 100% juice and the lettuce on your sandwich.  This is about what it’s been for the past 20 years.  Not much progress.

I’m not going to bother you with the Mt. Everest of research about the bennies of eating 5 cups a day of fruits and vegetables.  Unless you’ve been licving under a rock for the past 50 or so years, you know how beneficial eating fruits and vegetables can be for your health – and your taste buds.   I’m just going to say we can do better.

Cut To The Chase Nutrition take-away: I don’t’ split hairs here.  While 2½ cups of vegetables and 1½ cups of fruit are the recommended minimums, don’t obsess.  If your consumption adds up to at least 4 cups a day, in any combo, and regardless of whether they’re fresh, canned, frozen or dried, take a bow.  Keep the juice to a max of 1 cup though, and the dried fruit to 1/4 cup or so if you’re watching calories. 

Otherwise eat up.   

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!