Thanksgiving Weight Loss Tips

1. Eat high–fat. Fat may have calories, but it’s also very filling. There’s a limit to how much of it you can eat before you feel full. In fact, if you eat some foods containing fat, you may end up consuming fewer calories overall, because you won’t be as hungry later. So, if you’re going to have a turkey, go ahead and eat the skin, the dark meat, and the gravy, and if you eat dairy, use whole milk and cream in your cooking. See my article on Understanding Fat for more on this subject.

2. Look for an organic, free–range turkey. If you eat meat and poultry, it’s important that it come from a healthy animal. Most turkeys are raised on “factory” farms where they’re crammed into small cages with hardly room to turn around. These animals, which don’t get their exercise, are fed on corn and soybeans instead of their natural diet. Because they’re sick, weak, stressed out, and overfed, they’re given lots of antibiotics to keep them going. It’s cheaper to raise turkeys this way, but it’s not very humane or healthy. Free–range turkeys are much less prone to sickness and more likely to eat their natural diet (which includes plants and insects), which means that they have a healthier fat profile. You also don’t have to overcook them out of fear of bacteria! See my article on Animal Products for more information.

Organic turkeys can be more expensive because they’re farmed on a small scale, so it may not be feasible for you to get one. However, if you can make room in your budget, it’s definitely worth the extra cost.

3. Include plenty of vegetables. It’s not just what you don’t eat, it’s what you do eat that counts. Vegetables contain fiber and natural compounds that help us to burn and break down fat. Onions, garlic, greens, green beans, celery, daikon radish, leeks, cabbage, etc., are all great vegetables that can serve this purpose. Save some of your vegetables for the end of your meal, because that way they can help break down the heavier food you ate first.

4. Complex carbohydrates over simple ones. Simple carbs include white flour, corn syrup, and sugar, and products with these ingredients. Complex carbs include whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, cornmeal, quinoa, millet, barley and buckwheat. They also include sweet vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips. Potatoes are complex carbohydrates too, but not quite as nutritious as the sweet vegetables. Complex carbohydrates are more filling, digest more slowly, and give you steady energy. Simple carbs get absorbed into the blood all at once, are stored as fat, and leave you hungry for more. Try using whole grain bread or real whole grains for stuffing (see recipe below), and include a side dish or two with naturally sweet vegetables.

5. Don’t use processed foods that have added sugars; instead, make your own dishes. Most simple carbs and other processed ingredients come in pre–made food like stuffing or pumpkin pie mixes. This is where the real weight gain comes in. Food companies process foods to make them less filling and more addictive, deliberately guiding you towards overeating. Whenever you can, make food from scratch using real, natural ingredients. See my article on What is Processed Food? to learn more.

6. Don’t eat between lunch and dinner. Or breakfast and dinner, depending how soon you’re eating the main meal. Most people gain weight by snacking in between meals. That’s when we’re most likely to eat processed foods, and to eat a lot of calories without realizing it. Wait to eat until you’re sitting down to a balanced dinner that includes something from every food group. Trying to fill up before dinner is the worst thing you could do—the homemade, balanced meal is what you want to save yourself for! You won’t overeat at dinnertime, even if you’re hungry, because you’ll be eating food that’s truly filling.

7. Chew, eat slowly, and enjoy your food. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when we’re full. So eat slowly and enjoy every bite. The more you chew, the less work the rest of your digestive system has to do, and you will get more nutrients out of your food (this means you’ll actually benefit from what you’re eating). By going slow, you’ll give your body a chance to tune in to whether it’s full or not. If you really savor your food, you’ll get the important taste satisfaction—without it, you may keep eating whether you’re hungry or not.

The above is my challenge to those who claim that the one time you sit down to dinner with your family over a home–cooked meal is when you’re going to gain weight. Nonsense! It’s only when processed foods and snacks take predominance over the actual Thanksgiving meal that the weight gain starts. So, instead of trying to cut down on the main dinner, indulge in that and cut down on everything else. You’ll feel fuller and be lighter at the same time!

Nutritious Herbs and Spices

Including herbs and spices is vital for making your home–cooked food taste good. But there’s more to it than that; herbs and spices contain some of the most powerful health benefits of all plant foods and are often used as medicine just as much as they are used for flavor. Below is a list of 10 of the most nutritious herbs and spices!

1. Cayenne Pepper contains a compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for its hot and spicy flavor. Capsaicin is a very powerful anti–inflammatory and can reduce pain from arthritis, psoriasis and other inflammatory conditions. The stimulating heat of capsaicin also induces sweating, breaks up congestion in the body, and helps you burn calories, so it’s good for losing weight and eliminating toxins. Bright red cayenne also contains a high concentration of beta carotene, which supports the immune system. Include it in your cooking if you are often congested or have inflammatory pain. Use it to spice up beans, hot chocolate, sautéed vegetables and bitter greens. Also mix with lemon juice to make the master cleanser.

2. Cinnamon, one of the most popular spices, is also one of the greatest medicines. Like cayenne, cinnamon is anti–inflammatory and helps break up blood clots. The “power compound” in cinnamon is its essential oil, cinnemaldehyde, which is anti–microbial; it kills bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida. Cinnamon is excellent for people with diabetes, as it reduces sugar cravings and triples insulin’s ability to metabolize blood sugar. Finally, cinnamon makes you smarter! Studies have shown that the scent of cinnamon stimulates brain function, including memory and visual–motor speed. Cinnamon is excellent in baking, as it balances out the sugar of most desserts, and on hot breakfast cereals. It also goes well with ground meats and beans.

3. Cumin contains high amounts of iron, which is especially beneficial for menstruating women, and it improves digestion by stimulating the secretion of pancreatic enzymes. Like cayenne, it breaks up blood clots and reduces cholesterol in the blood. Cumin is also known to have anti–cancer properties, in that it neutralizes free radicals in the body and enhances the liver’s detoxification capabilities. Cumin combined with black pepper and honey is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. It also goes well with black beans, guacamole, falafel, hummus and fish.

4. Garlic may be the strongest of all healing herbs. Its potent, pungent healing effects come from sulfur–based compounds known as thiosulfinates, of which the most notable is allicin. The superstition that garlic wards off vampires is symbolic of its ability to kill off bad bacteria and viruses. Garlic reduces blood pressure, eliminates free radicals, reduces plaques, and is perhaps the most powerful antioxidant, anti–inflammatory, anti–microbial, anti–viral natural substance you can eat. A clove of raw garlic can usually knock out any approaching sickness. Garlic also reduces your risk for cancer and promotes optimal overall health. When it comes to cooking, garlic is standard for improving the flavor of almost any dish, especially when combined with onions and olive oil. Good roasted with root vegetables and meat, cooked in soups, sautéed with vegetables, toasted on bread, etc., etc.

5. Ginger, actually a root, is highly effective at reducing all forms of gastrointestinal distress, including cramps, stomachaches, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and even motion sickness and nausea. Ginger is yet another powerful anti–inflammatory that reduces arthritis pain, especially in the knees. It’s also been shown to kill off ovarian cancer cells. Ginger boosts the immune system by producing heat that encourages the expunging of toxins through sweating. Grated ginger is excellent added to lemonade, rice and bean dishes, sautéed or baked fish, baked goods (such as ginger cookies), and as a salad dressing with tamari, sesame oil and garlic.

6. Parsley,, like cinnamon, contains volatile oils that inhibit tumors and neutralize carcinogens; it also contains many antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins A and C. It helps reduce urinary infections and can be useful for breaking down and expelling gallstones and kidney stones. Parsley adds some spice to pesto and hummus; combined with garlic and lemon juice, it goes well with meat dishes. Its bright green color makes it an excellent garnish for soups and other dishes; just don’t forget to eat it!

7. Rosemary just plain smells good, and its distinctive smell has the same memory–strengthening properties as cinnamon. One of rosemary’s most distinctive health benefits is its ability to improve blood flow and circulation, especially to the brain, and is good for those with low blood pressure and any other circulatory weaknesses. It is also an anti–inflammatory agent and an antioxidant. Rosemary is great as a seasoning for roasted chicken, in omelets, added to tomato sauce, and to roasted vegetables.

8. Saffron, which has a cameo in the movie Ratatouille, inhibits the growth of tumors and it also stimulates T cells (immune system cells) to reproduce, thus supporting the immune system. It turns everything a golden yellow and is used in rice dishes such as paella.

9. Thyme’s specialty is reducing disorders associated with the chest and lung area, and can reduce coughs, bronchitis, and congestion located in the chest. It also helps expel intestinal worms and destroys bacteria and fungi. It contains an essential oil, thymol, that is a strong antioxidant, and it is also high in iron, manganese and calcium. Thyme can be used in cooking pretty much just like rosemary, and is also especially good with poached fish.

10. Turmeric may be second only to garlic as one of the most powerful anti–inflammatory and anti–cancer seasonings. Add it to your food to reduce inflammatory pain, especially from inflammatory bowel disease, and to reduce the risk of cancer, strokes and heart disease. Its healing strength comes not just from its volatile oil, but the compound that gives it its orange–yellow pigment, which is known as curcumin. Curcumin is as powerful an anti–inflammatory as some over the counter drugs, but has no side effects (unless you count reducing or preventing chest pain, bruises, colic, menstrual difficulties, prostate cancer, leukemia, alzheimer’s, and even inhibiting the spread of HIV. Wow!). Curcumin is pretty strong; you’ll notice that everything cooked with turmeric becomes the color of turmeric. It goes well with eggs, brown rice, Indian foods such as lentils and cauliflower, and roast chicken.

Cooking with Whole Foods

One of the biggest obstacles against eating healthier is learning how to cook. The meals you make yourself, where you can choose fresh ingredients and prepare food from scratch, are usually the healthiest. But home cooking has become rare in our culture, and has been supplanted by restaurant food, take–out food, and processed food from supermarkets. It’s not just that we don’t know how to cook; we’re also too busy. There are two sacrifices we make when we cook less. One is that we’re not as healthy, which ultimately leads to us not being able to live our lives and do what we’re meant to do as much as we’d like. The second is that we lose out on one of the great pleasures of life. And by pleasure I don’t just mean what we get out of a great taste and wonderful smells. There’s also the pleasurable feeling you get when you’ve eaten food that heals and supports your mind and body, improving your mood and your energy.

Why does home cooking do this for us? Well, putting your own energy and personality into your food is already a step in the right direction, even if you’re not using super–healthy ingredients. Cooking sends a message to your body that you’re taking the time to feed it. This is not only a loving thing that you do for yourself but it also gets your body ready to digest food in a way that just ordering some fast food does not.

Cooking can be a great social and family activity, and it can be a therapeutic one as well. Cooking, like art, requires mindfulness. You have to be focused on what you’re doing to make it come out right, but the smells and colors and anticipation all combine to make it a pleasurable experience.

Although it takes some time to learn how to cook, you end up saving a terrific amount of money in the process. Meals you buy cost far more than the ingredients they are made from. Basic ingredients like fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, and meat are very inexpensive when compared to takeout or boxed, processed food.

Most importantly, home cooking allows you to prepare your meals with fresh and healthy ingredients. Most processed foods are made with dozens of unpronounceable artificial and chemical ingredients that don’t really belong in your body. You also don’t know how fresh the natural ingredients used in them were. Nor do you really know about the quality of ingredients and the cleanliness of most restaurants or fast food places—or maybe you know more than you would like. In cooking for yourself, you have the opportunity to create a really healthy, balanced meal from fresh, natural ingredients, a meal that tastes better than anything you’ve ever bought.

Ingredients

Cooking turns ingredients into a form that can be consumed. There are definitely different levels of cooking. Even if you just boil some pasta and add a jar of tomato sauce—that’s cooking. It’s a big improvement over simply ordering pizza or Chinese food because you can at least read the ingredients. In the kind of cooking I recommend, to use the same example, you would go a step further and try making your own tomato sauce from scratch, using whatever ingredients you like (for me, that would be onions, garlic, pepper, basil and olive oil in addition to fresh tomatoes). One step beyond that would be making your own pasta. But, uh, unless cooking is also your full–time job, such an undertaking can probably be saved for special occasions.

In general, then, my recommendation is that you try to make from scratch as much of your food as you can while relying on just some knives, a cutting board, some pots and pans, and maybe a food processor. Do your best to bake your own desserts and cook your own meals 51 percent of the time, and you’ll notice a huge improvement in your health and happiness.

Cooking with whole foods means having on hand the following ingredients: fresh vegetables, whole grains and whole grain flour, beans, nuts and seeds, meat (if you’re a meat eater), dairy products like milk, butter, and cheese, eggs, natural sweeteners, fruit and dried fruit, and most importantly, herbs, spices and condiments. Healthy food without seasoning is just…bleh. In fact, it’s not even that healthy; your body won’t be able to work itself up to digest bland food.

Cooking

Cooking is vast art that incorporates many different ingredients and techniques. Huge cookbooks contain thousands of recipes and exhaust every last detail about food. I can’t come close to reproducing that. But I do have some suggestions for incorporating whole foods into what you already know. Most cookbooks have recipes that use refined, processed, and prepackaged ingredients. Instead of tossing out the many good cookbooks we have because they don’t rely exclusively on whole foods, we just perform some substitutions to make our recipes healthier. Below is a list of helpful steps you can take to improve the health and flavor of any recipe.

1. Use brown rice instead of white rice.

Even though it’s becoming common knowledge that whole grains are much better for you than refined grains, many cookbooks still rely on white rice. White rice doesn’t add any nutrients to your body, and worse, the nutrients you already have are used to digest it. Too much of this refined food and you can get malnourished. Worse, since it’s not filling, you can eat way more calories than you need. Those calories are turned into extra fat. It’s very easy to substitute brown rice; it just takes a little more water and a little more cooking time. See the recipe here for basic brown rice. If you are making something like a pilaf that requires the rice to be cooked with other things, and the recipe calls for white rice, you can half cook the brown rice (that is, get it to soak up half the amount of water needed for it to be done) and then use it in place of the white rice, just like your recipe says.

2. Substitute some whole wheat flour or other grain flours for white flour.

White flour has the same flaws as white rice. However, many baked goods need at least some white flour to maintain their texture. We usually take a recipe that calls for 100% white flour and make it 50% white, 50% whole wheat. Spelt flour and rye flour can also be used in place of whole wheat, and they provide some nice variety.

3. Use less sugar or use natural sweeteners

Many recipes that call for sugar call for a lot more than you actually need. When it comes to cookies or other baked goods, try removing a third of the sugar and see if you notice any difference—you probably won’t. Sugar, like white flour and white rice, is an extreme food that can drive your blood sugar wild. Reduce the sugar and you’ll have steadier energy levels after eating without sacrificing a sweet taste. You can also substitute liquid natural sweeteners for white sugar. Maple syrup, barley malt, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey, and agave nectar are all excellent natural sweeteners. Usually, the natural sweetener comes in a jar with directions on what proportions to use in substituting for sugar—but you may also just want to experiment and see what works for you!

4. Soak and add kombu to your beans first.

Beans are a healthy food and I recommend that you cook with them often, but the problem is that they are difficult to digest, and most cookbooks don’t tell you how to prepare them so that they can be digested. Before you include beans in a recipe, first soak them for 4 to 8 hours or overnight. Soaking helps them release an indigestible compound called phytic acid; this is the compound that causes gas. Also include a strip of a sea vegetable called kombu (also called kelp) to beans as they cook; kombu furthers digestibility. Vinegar provides similar benefits as kombu, but add it near the end of cooking. Don’t add salt until the beans are completely cooked, as salt hinders the cooking process. Try to reduce using canned beans, as they have a ton of added sodium (and they probably haven’t been soaked to reduce phytic acid).

5. Use fresh vegetables instead of canned or frozen.

Fresh vegetables have incalculable advantages over their canned or frozen counterparts; they contain much more nutrition, provide better energy, taste better, and are brighter in color and more pleasant to look at. It might take a little more time to cook your own vegetables, but in turn they will provide you with the increased energy you need. In my opinion, it’s not about how much time we have; it’s about whether we have the energy to make efficient use of our time.

However, canned or frozen vegetables are better than no vegetables at all, and frozen are better than canned. Don’t let this recommendation be an excuse for not making vegetables a solid part of your diet.

6. Use organic produce and grass–fed meat.

Good cooks use good quality ingredients. It’s not possible to use organic meat, dairy and vegetables all the time because of the cost (cooking mostly with whole foods is a big step in itself), but the absence of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and hormones in your food leads to a better feeling both during and after eating.

7. Add greens.

You can usually find good recipes for most other vegetables, but with the exception of broccoli and spinach, dark leafy green vegetables tend to get the shaft. Unfortunately, these greens are the foods that will probably make the single greatest difference in your health. So just cook them separately as a side dish and add them to whatever else you’re doing. Kale, collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy, swiss chard, cabbage and arugula are all good choices. Just chop them up, lightly boil them and they are ready to serve.

8. Don’t skim off the fat.

Many recipes advise using low–fat ingredients because they think that’s what health–conscious people are looking for. However, reducing fat can actually be dangerous to your health—see my extensive article on fat. Recipes aren’t just made better by including brown rice and greens—they’re improved by making sure you have plenty of fat! So stick with whole milk, cream, real butter, cheese, etc., whenever you can; just try to get your dairy products from grass–fed cows. Usually, low–fat foods substitute sugar for fat, and since sugar is more addictive that it is satisfying, we end up eating far more calories worth of low–fat food than we did of high–fat foods, which makes us fatter and our hearts less healthy in the end. Also take a look at my article on omega-3s, a culprit in the indemnification of saturated fat.

9. Include a variety of flavors.

One reason why people resist healthy eating is because they think it’s going to be bland. “Eating healthy” means no fat, no salt, no sugar, no spices, in other words, no flavor at all. You might as well be eating cardboard. However, the view that healthy cooking means leaving out flavor is just a popular misconception. Healthy eating is really all about balance. If you follow the above steps—that is, if you use whole grains instead of refined grains, natural sweeteners more than sugar, good quality meat and fat, and plenty of vegetables, then plenty of salt, spices and fat and sweeteners are the perfect complement. The only reason these things were ever given a bad name is because processed foods contain excessive amounts of poor quality fat and sugar (corn syrup, hydrogenated oil) and pure, mineral–free sodium. If you’re cooking with whole foods, you absolutely ought to add flavor from healthy sources.

10. Keep it simple.

In popular media cooking is often looked at as something that is either done by a professional or as a hobby. But in my opinion, cooking is as natural to every family as working and sleeping. That means that cooking doesn’t always have to be some gourmet delicacy with specialized ingredients. It’s something that’s straightforward, but eternally refreshing due to the endless simple variations that are possible. The animated movie Ratatouille, in addition to being funny and touching, has an excellent perspective on cooking. The main character is a rat living in the French countryside who has a natural talent for cooking. He refuses to just wolf down garbage like his friends and family. Eventually, he winds up in a famous French restaurant in Paris that is on the decline, and after befriending a garbage boy who works there he sets to work secretly improving their recipes. Plenty of complicated gourmet dishes are whipped up over the course of the movie. But what stands out is his appreciation for good food made from fresh, whole ingredients, and his willingness to experiment. Cooking takes some practice, and you’re liable to mess things up when you don’t follow the instructions. But if you’re willing to try cooking for yourself, you’ll soon reach a point where every meal increases not just your health but your happiness as well.

Understanding Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the current culprit for obesity. Back when the conventional wisdom dictated that fat, especially saturated fat, was bad for you, many food companies started to extensively promote low-fat foods such as pasta, cereal, crackers, chips and even pastries as the “healthy” alternatives to foods such as meat and dairy products. Because people were afraid of butter and cream, food companies avoided those ingredients. What did they add back in to keep their food products interesting? Usually it was sugar and white flour, both low in fat but high in carbohydrates. But even though they avoided fat, Americans didn’t get any thinner.

One of the lone voices dissenting from the low-fat philosophy was Dr. Atkins, whose “Atkins diet” claimed that it was carbs, not fat, that made you fat. A few years ago, the Atkins theory, which was backed up by other low-carb diets like the South Beach diet, really caught on, such that carbohydrates are currently thought to be as bad as fat once was. Some alternative nutritionists now argue that we weren’t even meant to eat starchy carbohydrate foods at all but should stick to our primal, hunter-gatherer origins and eat meat, berries and roots. What has been the result of all this theorizing? Food companies have jumped on the low-carb craze and come out with lots of low-carb foods, just like they did, and are still doing, with the low-fat craze.

As always, the goal of food companies (sometimes working in tandem with nutritionists and diet-book authors) is to convince you that you can only eat certain foods – that is, the ones that they produce and sell – and then get you to buy them. They argue that the foods made naturally – whether it’s butter, or bread made from whole wheat – are not good enough, and need to be refined and then enriched or replaced entirely with artificial creations. In my opinion, however, there is nothing wrong with natural sources of fat or carbs; in fact, some of the healthiest foods are high-fat and high-carb foods. In the last article, we talked about natural, healthy sources of fat and how to include them in your diet. In this article, we’ll talk about healthy, natural carbohydrates and how to get enough of them to stay full and satisfied without gaining weight.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are molecules made up of the atoms carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Much of the food we eat consists of carbohydrates. Grains, including wheat, rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, barley and oats, are the most well known high-carbohydrate foods. However, fruits and vegetables are also made up mostly of carbohydrates, as are beans. In fact, one of the most ubiquitous carbohydrate foods, sugar, is derived from fruits and vegetables. Not all of these carbohydrate foods are identical, though; there are three distinct kinds. The first group of carbohydrates is sugars. Foods that are mostly made up of sugars include fruit, sweet vegetables, and the pure sugars derived from them, such as maple syrup, corn syrup, and cane sugar. The second group of carbohydrates is made up of starches. Whole grains, bread, beans, and potatoes are foods that are mostly starch. The third group of carbohydrates consists of foods that are mostly fiber, like green leafy vegetables. None of these foods are 100% sugar, starch, or fiber. However, it is possible to process foods down to that point. White sugar, also known as sucrose, is indeed pure sugar. It comes from sugarcane or from beets, which, while they contain sugar, also have some fiber and starch. You can also get fiber supplements at the store, but a high-fiber food, like collard greens, also has a little sugar and some starch in it, particularly in the stem. So don’t make the error of thinking of a food as a “sugar” or a “starch”; most foods have some of each kind of carbohydrate.

The difference between these three groups is really only one of degree. Sugars, which include glucose (the kind of sugar in our blood), fructose (the kind of sugar that is in fruit), and sucrose (the aforementioned white sugar) are the simplest forms of carbohydrates. They are also known as monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides can be absorbed into the blood without any metabolism necessary. Disaccharides have to be broken down into monosaccharides to be absorbed, but their metabolism is extremely quick. The more simple sugars a food contains, the more quickly we digest it and absorb it into our blood.

Starches are made up of long chains of glucose saccharides. For this reason the digestive system needs more time to metabolize them and absorb them into the blood. Starches, again, come from plant foods like grains, beans, squash and potatoes. These “complex carbohydrates,” also known as polysaccharides, are created by plants as a way of storing glucose energy. Enzymes in the human digestive system break them down into disaccharides and then into monosaccharides.

The final category of carbohydrates, fiber, is also a polysaccharide, but so complex that it cannot be broken down by the human body. There are two kinds of fiber. Insoluble fiber passes directly through the intestines without being absorbed. Because it attracts water, it softens the stool, making bowel movements easier. The other kind of fiber, soluble fiber, ferments inside the large intestine and yields beneficial short-chain fatty acids. Most plant foods contain both soluble and insoluble fiber; beans, grains, fruits and vegetables all provide us with abundant fiber.

What are carbohydrates good for?

Because carbohydrates are easy for the body to metabolize and quickly absorb into the blood, they are an excellent source of energy (calories). Carbohydrates are to our body almost like gasoline is to a car. Following the development of agriculture and the subsequent growth of human populations, most people have depended on high-carbohydrate plant foods to get them through a physically intense workday. Since meat was traditionally not widely available, most people around the world for thousands of years depended on a combination of grains, beans and starchy vegetables like yams and potatoes to provide most of their sustenance, and ate highly prized meat and fat when they could get it.

What happens when we don’t eat carbohydrates? The body still needs energy from glucose to function properly. If it doesn’t have carbohydrates (the most efficient source of glucose), it will burn fat for energy. It will even break down muscle tissue and draw on protein stores if desperate. This process is known as ketosis. It’s a way for us to survive even in periods of famine. Many low-carbohydrate diets make use of ketosis as a way to help people lose weight. In my opinion, though, starvation is not the best way for people to lose weight; a moderate diet with the right kind of carbohydrates is a much more sensible option.

Carbohydrates are not just important for providing us with energy to undergo physical activity. Glucose is also the fuel that the brain needs to function. If you starve yourself of carbohydrates, you can slow down your brain’s ability to function properly and lose your ability to think clearly.

In sum, sugars and starches are important for keeping both your body and mind running. Fiber helps you to digest your food more easily and provides us with short-chain fatty acids that contribute to a number of important physical processes. Including some of all these kinds of carbohydrates in your diet is very important.

What kind of carbohydrates should I eat?

Many people are now cautious about carbohydrates because they’re linked to weight gain. I grew up on a high-carbohydrate diet: the Macrobiotic diet. The diet is mostly whole grains, with a ton of vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally beans. Fat hardly ever puts in an appearance (except for a little sesame oil here and there), and protein is pretty low (you get some protein from combining grains and beans, but high-protein animal products are out). Everyone who goes on this high-carbohydrate diet loses weight like crazy, no matter how much food they eat (and sometimes it’s a lot, because the diet is not very filling).

Why didn’t macrobiotic people get fat on carbohydrates? It’s because not all high-carbohydrate foods are alike. There are two kinds: carbohydrate foods that occur in nature, which contain not just carbohydrates but also vitamins and minerals; and carbohydrate foods that have been processed to the point where they are just pure sugar or starch. To understand what the difference means for your body, we’ll have to talk a little more about food chemistry and what happens when you digest carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates start being metabolized in the mouth, when acted on by the salivary enzyme amylase. They are broken down into their simplest form, that of glucose monosaccharides, in the small intestine. Glucose molecules are small enough to be absorbed through the intestine into the blood, where they can be used for energy (a process called catabolism).

When we eat a natural, whole form of a carbohydrate food, such as brown rice, quinoa, black beans, carrots, onions, apples, bananas, etc., we digest not just pure carbohydrates, but also other compounds such as vitamins, minerals, other nutrients, and water. Natural foods like grains, fruits and vegetables are constituted such that all of their components combine for gentle and steady digestion, which results in a gradual, consistent flow of glucose into the blood and therefore a calm, steady energy level.

What kind of carbohydrates should I avoid?

Unfortunately, many people don’t get their carbohydrates from whole, natural foods, but rather from refined, processed foods. The two kinds of carbohydrates that are in most processed foods are sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, and white flour. These two foods are pure sugar and pure starch, respectively. They constitute most cereals, breads, pastas, chips, candies, bagels, pastries and crackers. What happens when we eat these foods? Because they contain pure carbohydrates and little else, they are digested very rapidly. This means that our blood gets a flood of glucose all at once. Having high blood sugar levels gives us a lot of energy, but it’s dangerous for your body’s health. To keep blood sugar within safe levels, the pancreas secrete the hormone insulin, which stores glucose in the cells in the form of glycogen (a polysaccharide) and in the form of triglycerides (fatty acids). Responding to dangerously high blood sugar levels, the body overreacts and takes too much sugar out of the blood, leaving us fatigued and irritable. At this point we often reach for more pure sugar and white flour-containing foods, and the cycle begins again. If this happens too often, a person’s insulin production can become exhausted, which is the condition known as diabetes.

Diabetes is not the only side effect of eating too much sugar and white flour, though; every time the body is flooded with too much pure sugar, it has to draw on its own nutrient stores to properly handle the sugar and remove it from the body. Since most foods that are high in sugar and white flour don’t contain vitamins and minerals, then not only does the body use up its supply, but that supply doesn’t get replenished! If our body doesn’t have enough nutrients, it loses the ability to undergo its most basic functions. The immune system is weakened and can’t protect us. The brain does not function as well, leading to depression, bipolar disorder, or other irrational behavior. Osteoporosis, tooth decay, and kidney damage can all occur as a result of mineral deficiency. Sugar and white flour create an over-acidic condition in the digestive system, leading to candida, acid reflux, and other digestive disorders. The list goes on.

What about weight gain? When sugar is removed from the blood via insulin, it is stored as triglycerides – fat molecules. Since most foods with white flour and sugar are low in density (they don’t contain or water of fiber, and so are not very filling), it’s easy to eat a lot of them – and since they’re pure carbohydrates, they’re very high in calories. Sugar and white flour are the real culprits for high triglycerides and hardening of the arteries. Not only do these simple carbohydrates get stored in our bodies as fat, making it very easy for us to gain weight, they make it very easy for us to succumb to a heart attack. Nevertheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bread product that contains 100% whole wheat flour, instead of white flour, or to find any food product at all that doesn’t contain sugar, high fructose corn syrup or some other form of sugar.

A good way to distinguish between natural carbohydrate foods and processed ones is to refer to them as “complex carbs” and “simple” carbs. The former include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. Whole wheat flour is a complex carbohydrate because, even though the wheat has been ground into flour, the fiber and wheat germ have not been processed out. Fruit and vegetable juices, even though they have been processed a little (fiber has been removed), still contain a lot of water, vitamins and minerals.

Simple carbohydrates are white flour, sugar (in all its forms), and the foods made from these ingredients. You don’t have to avoid them 100% of the time; in fact, how much you choose to eat simple carbohydrate-containing foods is up to you. But if you notice symptoms of fatigue, poor digestion or depression, if you have an erratic energy level, if you’re gaining a lot of weight, or if you’re at risk for heart disease – in fact, if you have any health concern at all – I suggest you reduce your intake of these foods and observe whether your health improves.

What if I like sugar and white flour?

Because of the high energy and mood boost they provide, sugar and white flour are tough to kick. A good place to start is to use more whole wheat flour and natural sweeteners (raw honey, barley malt, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup and molasses). Here you have sugar and starch in a form that digests pretty quickly, but not so quickly that your blood is flooded with glucose. Whole grains, starchy vegetables and fruit are not as sweet as most processed foods, but you’ll soon crave them for the balanced mood and energy they give you and you’ll begin to notice their more subtle flavors.

Another group of foods you can eat to control your craving for simple carbs is the high-fat foods. Many of our cravings for pastries and pasta come from the fact that we’ve eliminated fat from our diets, and so we don’t have a satisfying, long-lasting form of energy. Adding in more fat will actually make us more satisfied and cut down on the number of calories we eat in the end. Refer to the Understanding Fat article from last month for a guide to including fat in your diet.

5. Conclusion

Even though carbohydrates are healthy when found in whole, natural foods (in which condition they are known as “complex carbs”), they will cause weight gain and other health problems when eaten in the pure forms of white flour and sugar (“simple carbs”). I should point out that I don’t completely abstain from simple carbs. If I’m actually going to be using the energy they provide, then they’re not as bad. In the summer, when we need less food and prefer food that is less dense and heavy, more pasta and bread is okay. Let’s not forget that sugar really is delicious, even though I’ve essentially accused it above of being America’s No.1 killer. What’s important is that if you eat some simple carbs, make sure that you also eat some highly nutritious foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These will keep your system healthy and help your blood sugar stabilize. Sugar and white flour are still natural foods in the sense that they come from grains and vegetables (sugar is far, far better than artificial sweeteners that the human body cannot digest); they’re just very extreme foods that can put your body out of balance. Making sure that your diet is balanced and that your intake of simple carbs is moderate is key for living a long, healthy life at your natural weight.

Understanding Fat

1. Health Benefits of Fat

Fats are acids that are not soluble in water (hence the phrase “like oil and water” for things that do not mix well together. Oil is simply fat in liquid form). Edible fatty acids, or “fats” for short, are essential to the human diet. Examples of edible fats are animal fats from meat (lard, tallow, etc.), dairy fat (butter, cream, cheese), and vegetable fats (olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil). People have been eating fat as long as the human race has been around, and with good reason. Fats provide long–lasting energy, because they are high in calories but are slow to digest. They contribute to the formation of cell membranes and hormones in the body. They also contain and transmit the fat–soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and assist in mineral absorption. Without enough fat in the diet, many of us cannot properly assimilate our nutrients. This is one reason why taking vitamin and mineral supplements by themselves is not as healthy as, say, having a salad with olive oil.

Fats also provide warmth and insulation to the body and provide a layer of protection around our organs. They help us feel full so that we do not overeat. Some kinds of fats have antimicrobial properties that help strengthen the immune system. Fat also relieves stress, which is why it is thought of as a comfort food. When human beings did not have as much access to food as we do now, fat was highly prized for the heat and long–lasting energy it provided; for this reason it plays a major role in traditional diets.

It’s clear that having enough fat in our diets is extremely important. Without it, we can become weak, deficient and cold. We’re also more likely to get stressed out and anxious when something goes wrong. Without enough fat, we’ll turned to refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour for energy, which won’t fill us up even though they are high in calories. We won’t make the most of our vitamins and minerals, which makes our immune system weaker. Unfortunately, though, many people are uncomfortable about including more fat in their diets. People stick to low–fat or reduced–fat foods as a way to lose weight, and think they’re doing something sinful when they eat a lot of cream or butter. It’s important to acknowledge that fat can be dangerous if it’s not good quality. In the following section, we’ll see how the introduction of low–quality and processed fats contributed towards giving fat a bad name.

2. History of the Fat Scare

As I said above, people have been eating fat for just about forever without getting sick. So why did studies come out in the 1940s and 1950s saying that fat made you fat and clogged your arteries? In the beginning, it was a particular kind of fat that got all the negative press: saturated fat. This is the fat that is found in animal products like meat, milk, eggs, butter and cheese. Researchers noticed a correlation between a high amount of saturated fat in the diet and heart disease and obesity. You might wonder why foods that had been widely consumed for millennia were suddenly linked to health problems, but that question did not really get asked. The studies did provide the opportunity for food companies to sell more reduced–fat products that they could specially process. The studies also created a market for an alternative to natural saturated–fat animal products: polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Cheap vegetable oils had first been sold as alternatives to butter when Crisco, the vegetable–oil shortening, was put on the market in 1911. As more people thought they should avoid butter, food manufacturers sold vast quantities of margarines, liquid vegetable oils that had been hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature. A massive financial incentive existed for food companies to encourage people to be afraid of natural, whole animal fats and to buy their processed trans fats or low–fat alternatives instead. It was more profitable for food companies to encourage misunderstanding of the real consequences and meaning of the saturated fat studies.

There is a tendency in nutrition to pinpoint a food as good or bad, a “superfood” or a poison. In reality, what’s much more important for eating healthy is balancing your diet properly and making sure the foods you eat are of good quality. The reason why high consumption of saturated fat was linked to health problems was twofold: not only was the saturated fat of poor quality, but it wasn’t balanced enough by other foods.

Poor quality: Around the time these studies were done, animals raised for meat and milk were much less likely to be fed a healthy diet than they had been in the past. Instead of letting animals feed on grass and insects and roam on pasture, factory farmers crowded them into manufacturing plants and fed them cheap grains such as corn. Because these animals didn’t eat their vegetables, their meat and milk lacked important vitamins and minerals that would have helped us to process the saturated fat in it. More importantly, the animals didn’t have access to the omega-3 fatty acids that are in grass and insects. Omega-3 fatty acids are a kind of polyunsaturated fat that cleans out our arteries and helps our brains function (see the extensive article I wrote on them a few months agohere). If you eat the meat or dairy products of an animal fed on grass, you’ll get both saturated fat and omega-3 fat. The omega-3 fat will cancel out the artery–clogging effect of the saturated fat. In other words, it wasn’t saturated fat that was the problem; it was the absence of omega-3 fat. Unfortunately, the study did not make that clear. In conclusion, poor quality saturated fat from unhealthy animals that did not get their omega-3s will cause health problems.

Imbalanced diet: The studies done on people eating a diet high in saturated fat didn’t take into account what other foods they ate. In the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to eat a lot of meat but few vegetables, except perhaps peas and potatoes. Vegetables are very important for balancing our fat intake; they provide water, fiber and nutrients. We should be eating at least as much vegetable food by volume as we eat animal food. If you’re not eating your vegetables, too much fat will be a problem. Again, it’s not a single nutrient in isolation that’s good or bad, but what you eat with it. Instead of continuing to avoid vegetables and then also avoiding saturated fat, people should eat plenty of both.

What we’re finding out now is that the reason why heart disease and obesity haven’t decreased is because the processed foods that replaced saturated fat—sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils (aka trans fats)—are much worse. To understand why, we’ll need to move on to the final two sections of the article, where we talk about the science and chemistry of fats, and the quality of fat.

3. Fat Chemistry

There are three different kinds of fat molecules: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Polyunsaturated fat can be further divided into other fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The names are completely unintelligible because they connote characteristics on the molecular level. Fats are chains of carbon atoms whose bonds are completely or partially filled by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are called that because they have their bonds completely filled, which makes them very stable and unlikely to undergo any chemical reactions. Because they are stable, they pack together well and so are solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are missing two hydrogen atoms, so they are less stable and liquid at room temperature, but solid in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable and should be kept away from heat and light so that they don’t undergo a chemical reaction such as oxidation, which makes them rancid.

The fat that we eat and that exists in our bodies is in the form of triglycerides. A triglyceride is three of these fatty–acid chains attached to a glycerol molecule. We can raise our triglyceride levels by eating more fat but also by eating sugars (carbohydrates) which the liver turns into triglycerides if we do not use them for energy. This is the body’s way of storing calories in case we need them later. Extremely high levels of triglycerides in the blood have been clearly linked to heart disease, but it’s very hard to build those high levels by eating fat. Fat is so filling that there’s only so much we can eat at one sitting. Sugar, on the other hand, is not very filling but still very high in calories. Since we’re unlikely to be able to use all those calories, the leftover sugar will be converted into excess triglycerides, which will then just accumulate. The number one thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to reduce consumption of refined sugar.

Given that eating high–quality fat is not going to result in dangerously high levels of triglycerides, and that it has so many health benefits, how do we incorporate it into our diets? We need a balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6). Most foods contain a combination of each, but a predomination of one. For example, butter is about 70% saturated fat, while the rest is unsaturated. Sesame oil is about 40% monounsaturated and 40% polyunsaturated. Below is a breakdown of which edible fats fall into which categories:

Saturated fat: Foods with a high amount of this extremely stable fat are dairy products (butter, milk, yogurt, cream, cheese) animal fats like beef, pork and chicken fat (tallow, lard and schmaltz), and tropical fats like palm oil and coconut oil. Butter, animal fats, and tropical fats are the ones that you should use when you are cooking with high heat, whether stir–frying, deep–frying, or sautéing for long periods of time. Once softened a little, they are excellent for spreading on bread or other grains and grain products.

Monounsaturated fat: These are the fats that are liquid at room temperature but will sometimes solidify in the fridge. They include olive oil, avocado oil, and the oil from nuts such as almonds, pecans, cashews, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. These fats are a little lighter and less filling than the saturated fats. You can do some light cooking with olive oil or peanut oil, but monounsaturated fats are best eaten raw, whether you’re eating nuts or olives, olive oil dressing, or nut butters.

Polyunsaturated fat: These are the least stable of the fats; not only are they liquid at room temperature, but even in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are found either in green plant foods or in animals that have eaten a lot of green plants, whether from sea or land. Fish oil and cod liver oil is very high in omega-3s because fish feed on algae and plankton. Eggs, butter, meat and cheese from grass–fed animals also has plenty of omega-3 and omega-6 fat. Omega-6 fat can also be found in seeds such as sunflower seeds and flax seeds, soybeans, corn, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachios, and sesame seeds. In most cases, plant foods will have equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6. Avoid purchasing polyunsaturated omega-6 oils such as soybean oil, walnut oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil and safflower oil. Stick to just eating walnuts, corn, soybeans, sunflower seeds, and the like.

To be healthy, we need to eat some of all of these fats. Right now, saturated fat is recovering from a bad reputation, monounsaturated fat like olive oil is thought to be pretty good, omega-3 fatty acids are considered a miracle food, and omega-6s are just starting to get hated on. We already saw that the case against saturated fat was flawed. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids actually must be eaten in a 1:1 ratio for good health; the former is only thought of as better because we weren’t eating it at all, and we were eating too much omega-6. The reality is that all these fats are good; just eat some of each on a day–to–day basis. They balance each other within your system and are all needed for optimum health.

By itself, though, balance is not all you need to have a healthy fat intake. The final subject we need to take up is fat quality. Balancing the different kinds of fats in your diet is no good if the fats are rancid or toxic. Just as you wouldn’t buy wilted or rotten fruits and vegetables at the store, you must avoid low quality fat.

4. Fat Quality

Most of us don’t eat fat straight from the source; we go to the store and buy butter or olive oil or bacon or canola oil. Even if these foods are healthy in the ideal, natural state, how do we know if the specific fatty foods we buy are good for us? To answer this question it will be helpful to break down the different kinds of fat once again.

Saturated fat: Since this kind of fat mostly comes from animals, the key question is whether the animals were healthy. As we’ve already discussed, if an animal is grass–fed, its meat and milk will contain both saturated fat and omega-3 fat in a healthy ratio. Organic meat and milk is important as well because often toxins from pesticides and artificial fertilizers in the animals’ feed will be stored by their bodies in fat cells. The best quality saturated fat comes from an animal that’s been feed on organic grass and had room to move around.

Dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter should also come from a cow or goat that’s been able to feed on organic feed and grass and roam freely. Most dairy products are homogenized, which is a process that breaks up fat molecules so that they don’t collect together at the surface. Homogenization turns fat from a very healthy macronutrient into a dangerous one. See my milk article for a more detailed explanation. Pasteurization also kills bacteria and enzymes in dairy products that make it easier for us to digest fat. In addition to looking for non–homogenized milk, try also to find cheese made from raw milk, and butter that has had a bacteria culture added back into it. The nice thing about these better quality dairy products is that there really isn’t any limit on how much you can eat; just continue until you feel full. At the very least, avoid any dairy products or ice cream that are reduced fat; instead, have the whole–fat kind, but consume less.

Monounsaturated/Polyunsaturated Fat: Because these kinds of fats are less stable, they are more sensitive to heat and light. The first priority is to try and find vegetable oils that are made from organically grown vegetables. But also important is to buy oils that are carefully preserved on their way to the store. When unsaturated fats are exposed to light and other sources of heat, the heat will catalyze a chemical reaction in which the fat molecules react with the air and become oxidized. This is also known as rancidification. Rancid fats are very bad for us because they contain free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that contain extra oxygen. Once they are in our system, free radicals attack and break down the cells of our own body as a way to become neutralized. Symptoms of consuming foods with many free radicals include poor skin (wrinkles, age spots), a weakened immune system, and stagnant/damaged cells that can turn cancerous.

Almost all the commercial vegetable oils you can consume, whether they’re sold in clear plastic or glass jars at the store, or listed among the ingredients on a packaged, processed food, are probably already partly rancid and contain many free radicals. Serious oxidation can occur just from jars sitting on the shelf under fluorescent light all day. But most of it happens during processing. Almost all oil manufacturers extract vegetable oil from seeds by crushing the seeds while simultaneously heating them. The heat, light and oxygen that the oil is exposed to all contribute to its oxidation. Chemical solvents are also used to separate oil from seed pulp, traces of which still remain in the final product. Natural preservatives in the oil that prevent rancidity, such as vitamin E and other antioxidants, are also destroyed during processing.

It is possible, although perhaps not as efficient, to cold–press seeds as a method of extraction. Cold–pressed or expeller–pressed oil will contain far fewer free radicals, and will also contain natural antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. It is also possible to process oils without using a chemical solvent. These oils are called “unrefined” oils and contain a slight residue that signifies the presence of vitamins and other nutrients. Unrefined, cold–pressed vegetable oils sold in opaque jars are, like cultured, grass–fed butter, healthy fats that you can eat to your heart’s content (literally).

Trans fat: It’s worth it to devote special attention to the one kind of fat we consume which doesn’t occur in nature. Trans–fatty acids are those created when polyunsaturated vegetable oils (usually soybean oil, already rancid from its own extraction process) are mixed with a metal catalyst, usually nickel oxide, and put in a hot, high–pressure reactor with hydrogen gas. A forced chemical reaction occurs between the liquid oil and the hydrogen gas to create hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is solid at room temperature. The newly created trans fat molecule is indigestible and toxic to the human body, but our body will try to assimilate it anyway, upon which it interferes with normal cell metabolism, leading to overall physical dysfunction that includes a weakened immune system, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, birth defects, sterility, difficulty in lactation, sexual dysfunction and cancer. It’s obvious that there is no such thing as good quality trans fat, ever. Trans fat is found in most processed, packaged foods (just look for fully or partially hydrogenated ___ oil among the ingredients), and in most fried foods that you get at restaurants.

Our government has made it legal for food companies that make products with trans fat to list “0 grams trans fat” on the nutrition facts label when the serving size is small enough to contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. However, if you eat multiple servings, those grams will definitely pile up. In other words, you can’t trust the nutrition facts; look at the ingredients for hydrogenated oil.

5. Conclusion

Fat is an essential part of every person’s diet. How much of it you eat on a daily basis is something that you can let your body’s natural wisdom dictate; you don’t always have to consult an expert. As I’ve said before, eating too much is rarely a problem when it comes to something as filling as fat. Consuming fat only becomes a health risk when we’re eating poor quality fat, or if we’re not balancing our fat intake with other healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans. Eating some of each of the different kinds of fat is important as well (saturated, monounsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6). Avoid polyunsaturated fats that are rancid or hydrogenated (trans fats), and try to cut down on saturated fats that are from grain–fed animals. When push comes to shove, though, always choose a saturated fat like butter over a hydrogenated vegetable oil, regardless of quality, and remember to eat plenty of highly nutritious, antioxidant–laden fruits and vegetables no matter what you do. Not only will you be healthier after adding more good–quality fat into your diet, you’ll probably be a lot happier too!

What is Processed Food?

I don’t think I rail against anything more than processed foods, in my gentle and non–authoritative way. There’s nothing “evil” about these foods; they are just not the healthiest and will in fact cause health problems in many people. But I need to explain what I mean by processed foods, because there are definitely some foods that undergo processing and are still very healthy. Processed foods are defined in opposition to whole foods, which are fresh fruits and vegetables, dried grains and beans, nuts and seeds, spices and herbs, meat and milk. Processed foods are made from these fresh, whole foods. So let me start by explaining some kinds of food processing that I think are helpful and necessary.

The Great Processed Foods. Some foods need to be processed so that they can be digested better or preserved longer. For example, the grinding of grains of wheat (called berries) into flour to make bread is a kind of processing. Wheat berries are so hard that it is counterproductive to cook them like you would brown rice or quinoa. All natural, whole wheat bread is not quite as nutritious as cooked whole grains, but is still a healthy food when eaten in moderation. Another food that needs to be processed to be digested is the soybean. Soybeans, like wheat berries, are very hard and take forever to cook. That’s why they are soaked and fermented to make tempeh, miso, and soy sauce.

We also process food to make it last longer. The modern processing methods that have this purpose in mind can be very destructive, but traditional ways of preserving food also preserve its nutrients. These traditions include pickling and fermenting, smoking, drying, salting and curdling. Eating foods that have been processed according to these methods (in other words, pickles, cheese, yogurt, butter, smoked and salted meats and fish, beef jerky, dried fruit) is just fine.

The Good Processed Foods. A second tier of processed food that’s still okay is that of whole foods that have been frozen, canned or combined to make another food. For example, take ice cream. It’s great if you can make your own ice cream using the best quality milk and cream, but there are also ice cream brands available at the store that use pretty high quality ingredients. The same thing is true of many other foods available at the store: sauces, dressings, fruit juices, chocolate, pasta, condiments, etc. These are foods that you could make yourself but might not have the time. In that case it’s okay to get something that’s not whole. The key, again, is to read the ingredients. Look for things that don’t belong. Peanut butter should just have peanuts and salt, not sugar and hydrogenated oil. Tomato sauce doesn’t need sugar either. If you’re eating mostly whole foods, you don’t need bread that has added niacin, lecithin or other vitamins and minerals (whether you even absorb them in this form is questionable). We don’t know why manufacturers put in all this extra fat, sugar and artificial chemicals, but these are the exact things that accumulate in your body and are dying to get cleansed out in the spring. Look at the ingredients and make sure the ingredients used to make what you’re buying were whole foods.

Regarding frozen and canned foods, neither, unfortunately, are nearly as good as fresh vegetables. They’re definitely better than eating no vegetables. Some people develop a dislike for vegetables because they eat them frozen or canned too often instead of fresh. Frozen vegetables are better because they preserve more nutrients. Canned vegetables and canned beans often have high amounts of sodium, so keep that in mind if you choose to get them.

The Okay Processed Foods. These are foods that are largely made from other processed foods, like cookies or crackers or cereal made from flour and sugar. I would also put in here foods like potato chips cooked in a high amount of oil. These foods really don’t have much nutrition in them, though they provide some energy (usually in the form of a blood–sugar spike). The tipping point here when you go from the okay to the bad is whether they use artificial ingredients or hydrogenated oils (trans fats). Stores like Whole Foods and other health food stores sell loads and loads of these processed foods, but the ingredients are at least all natural. Up to this point, all the processing, though it has decreased the nutritional value of the food (whether because you’re not eating fresh, the ingredients are refined, etc.), there are no ingredients that have been manufactured in a laboratory.

The Worst Processed Foods. These are foods that contain either artificial chemicals such as artificial flavors, artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, sorbitol, saccharin), chemical preservatives like sodium nitrite and potassium sorbate, flavor enhancers like MSG, fat replacements like olestra, “modified food starch” and polydextrose, or they contain natural ingredients that have been modified in some way, like hydrogenated vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup, or, finally, they contain natural compounds extracted from foods and other sources that are not nutritious on their own, such as glucose, fructose, and soybean oil, hydrolyzed soy protein, ammonium hydroxide, sodium carbonate, and other chemical compounds. Almost all conventional snacks contain these preservatives, sweeteners, fat substitutes, thickeners, colorings, leaveners, firmers, stabilizers, emulsifiers and flavor enhancers. Fast food, junk food, candy, soda, pastries that can sit on the shelf at a highway rest stop until they’re covered with dust, etc., all contain these ingredients in abundance. There are many more such ingredients, but you can recognize them by the fact that they are hard to pronounce. These ingredients are often used to cover up the fact that the main ingredients are past their prime or of poor quality. Some of them are also used for their addictive properties. These are the ingredients that are closely linked to weight gain, digestive problems, headaches, colds, stomachaches, and serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and many other concerns for which we take medication.
In summary, some processed foods can be healthy, while others will lead to health problems. That doesn’t mean you can never have them, but try to make sure you balance the unhealthier ones with whole and cleansing foods, like those mentioned in the Spring Diet. Also, avoiding the worst processed foods doesn’t make you healthy automatically, thought it will make you feel a lot better on a day to day basis. Even if you eat all whole foods, it’s still necessary to have a balanced diet (for example, just eating a ton of salads all year is not a great idea for most people). If you run out of time for food preparation, stick with the “Good” and “Great” processed foods and try to avoid the ones that are just okay or worse. Remember that the foods with artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers are addictive, and it can take a while to switch off of them. A good first step is to get rid of the two most pervasive unhealthy ingredients: high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil. Just by taking that step, you’ll start feeling a lot more cleansed.

Sea Vegetables

I’ve always known that sea vegetables are among the best foods for your health. I grew up eating all the different species—nori, kombu, hijiki, arame, dulse, wakame. I was so familiar with them that their names even sounded normal to me. So when I started attending classes at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I couldn’t wait to hear my teachers extol the virtues of these unusual ocean–dwelling plants (or weeds, to use a less euphemistic term). To my surprise, sea vegetables were not placed front and center. Even the school’s founder said that it took him a long time to get into them. Later I realized that my teachers were trying not to alienate the majority of the student body by telling them that a healthy diet was all about eating the oddest and most exotic foods you could find. And they’re right—you can certainly be healthy without sea vegetables. Many traditional peoples settled and thrived in places where they weren’t available. But because sea vegetables do have so many nutritional benefits, and because they taste quite delicious even in quick, simple recipes, I think it’s important to devote some time to them, especially at this time of year, when their warming, salty qualities balance the harsh winter.

Because sea vegetables come from the ocean, they are coated with a wide variety of different minerals that are naturally present in the sea. These include calcium (ten times as much as an equal amount of milk), iron, magnesium, phosphorus, iodine, chromium and zinc, to name a few. Because of contemporary agricultural practices, the soil that our conventional food is grown in is often less rich in minerals than it used to be. Sea vegetables are therefore a good way to get all your minerals without having to buy expensive mineral supplements (which are not as efficient; minerals are much better absorbed when digested alongside plant tissue). Because of their salt and mineral content, they are even more alkalizing than other vegetables. Because they are plants, sea vegetables also contain a lot of vitamins such as A, C, and many of the B vitamins. Because they thrive in cold ocean environments, they especially help strengthen people in the winter. They are very good for people with serious health conditions like cancer because they carry toxic and radioactive waste out of the body.

Finally, because of their abundance of nutrients, sea vegetables will do amazing things for your skin and hair. Hijiki, arame, and wakame especially help promote beautiful glossy, shiny hair and prevent hair loss. Because they are so detoxifying, sea vegetables naturally promote healthy clear skin.

Most sea vegetables can be eaten in soups, as snacks, or in salads or stir–fries. The brands sold in health food stores always include on the packaging several recipes, because they are well aware that very few people have experience cooking these strange, and strange–looking, foods.

My sea vegetable cooking class, mentioned above, will be held on February 25 th. It’s a way for anyone interested in introducing these bizarre and wonderful foods to their diet to learn how to prepare them easily and quickly. If you’d like to come, send me an email and I will reserve your spot!

Digestive Health

Digestive concerns are among the most common health problems in America. They range from minor, if chronic, concerns like stomachaches, gas, and heartburn to serious conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, and there are many disorders in between. Pain, diarrhea, constipation, cramps, and bloating are all common symptoms. Sometimes poor digestion is, like other health concerns, a result of eating unhealthy or imbalanced meals. Many foods that are digestive aids have disappeared from the average American diet, and many foods that are very difficult to digest have been added in. Over time these foods put stress on the digestive system, and it can lose much of its ability to fulfill its basic function: metabolizing food into the proteins, sugars, fatty acids, and nutrients that are essential for life.

Digestion is special because, often, what you eat isn’t the whole story. It’s also important to take into accounthow you eat. When you’re eating under the proper conditions, even a supposedly unhealthy meal—like a high–fat meal—can pass through you causing relatively little damage. The reverse is also true: even a supposedly healthy meal may not do you much good unless you’re conscious of how you are eating it. By the “how” I mean things such as: whether you’re relaxed at home or rushing to get somewhere; whether you chew your food or gulp it down; whether you’re stressed or sociable; whether you combine the different food groups properly and eat foods in the right order; and so on.

The conventional recommendations for digestive problems are medications like steroids, antibiotics, and antacids. These substances often have side effects that are debilitating in themselves, and they represent the point of view that there is something innately and mysteriously wrong with the sick person’s digestive system. The body is malfunctioning, and the medication will fix it (if taken forever). In my experience, though, the problem is that as a society we’ve gotten accustomed to eating in a way that stresses the digestive system. Everyone I’ve worked with has seen their digestive problems begin to clear up for good, all because of making some simple changes in diet and lifestyle. In what follows, I’ll make some specific recommendations which highlight the difference for digestion between the traditional diets and the modern, and the way we ate then vs. now.

1. Maintain a healthy bacterial environment. The digestive system contains trillions of individual bacteria—more than there are cells in the body. They are responsible for much of the metabolism that occurs in the small intestine and elsewhere, because they secrete acids that help us absorb vitamins and minerals. They also aid the immune system by making the digestive system an inhospitable environment for disease–causing microbes. With a weak bacterial environment, we are both more susceptible to disease and have difficulty digesting our food. Many people have lost large amounts of their good bacteria through the use of antibiotics, which kill both good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. Antibiotics have saved many lives, but because they are so often prescribed (and not always with good cause), many people develop digestive problems and a weakened immune system as a result of overuse of antibiotics. The most direct way to replenish the intestinal flora is to take supplements (called Probiotics) that allow you to ingest large amounts of bacteria in capsule form, and I recommend them for those who have taken many antibiotics in the past. There are two strains of bacteria to take: Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum. You can easily find them in the supplements section of the health food store.

I rarely recommend supplements, because I think it’s important to get all of our nutrition from food. However, there are some people who have lost large amounts of bacteria through medications, and probiotics can help return a person to normal faster than bacteria–containing foods. Once your digestive problems clear up, you won’t need to keep taking these supplements.

Eating well and living a happy, healthy lifestyle is the best thing you can do to avoid being in a situation where antibiotics (and subsequently probiotics) are necessary. There is a food group that we can eat from for the purpose of maintaining digestive health: the fermented foods.

2. Make fermented foods a staple of your diet. Fermented foods have been eaten for thousands of years and should form a separate food group of their own in any respectable Food Pyramid. Controlled fermentation (probably discovered by accident) served as a way to preserve food for long periods of time. It was also soon discovered that fermented foods were very good for the digestion, and fermenting was done for this reason also.

Fermenting or culturing is a process in which bacteria are allowed to feast on a food (such as cabbage for making sauerkraut) and transform its sugars, or carbohydrates, into acids such as lactic acid. This is what gives many fermented foods a slightly sour taste. The reason why fermentation works as a preservation method is because the increased acidity prevents pathogenic bacteria from contaminating the food.

Fermented food is easier to digest because the bacteria have already done some of the work in digesting it for you. You can therefore access its nutrients much more easily and quickly. Another advantage of fermentation has to do with digestive enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that are catalysts for chemical reactions in the body. Without them, it’s impossible to metabolize food. Enzymes also are very important for eliminating toxins from the body. Many raw foods, including raw animal products, come with their own enzymes that are more easily accessible after fermentation. This is why yogurt can be tolerated by lactose intolerant people: the enzyme lactase converts the indigestible lactose sugar into lactic acid.

Cooking or baking, and pasteurization, will destroy both enzymes and bacteria. The advantage of cooking is that it’s also a form of metabolism making foods softer and easier to digest. A healthy diet will contain mostly cooked foods but also some raw fermented foods. These include dairy products like yogurt; pickles like pickled cabbage (sauerkraut) and other pickled foods such as umeboshi plums, pickled ginger, and plain old pickles; vinegar; and fermented soy foods like tamari soy sauce, miso, and tempeh. These foods have many digestive enzymes and live bacteria that make it possible to digest even very heavy, fatty food. It’s been theorized that part of the reason why we suffer so much from clogged arteries, overweight, constipation and poor digestion in this country is not necessarily because we eat too much meat and fat, but because all the fermented foods we used to eat are now either no longer part of the diet or heat–treated to destroy the very bacteria we need to be healthy.

3. Maintain an acid–alkaline balance. The overall pH of the body is meant to be just above 7.0 (slightly more alkaline than the pH of pure water). At this level of acidity, our immune system and our body’s metabolism work most efficiently. A balanced diet has a roughly equal amount of alkalizing foods and acidifying foods. Too much of one or the other can result in health problems. A good analogy for pH is temperature. Your body is always working to maintain a temperature of around 98.6. A few degrees too hot or cold and the body can’t survive. Similarly, the body is always working to maintain a pH balance. The average American diet, though, contains an excess of foods that make the body overly acid. This leads to a lot of health concerns like acid reflux and Crohn’s disease. Too many acidifying foods can also deplete the body of buffering minerals like calcium, because these are used to help excrete the acid. Coca–cola, with all its phosphoric acid, is a good example of an extremely acidifying food that may be partly responsible for health concerns like osteoporosis.

In general, acid–forming foods are meat, oils and fats, coffee, and most grains (both whole and refined), and other refined carbohydrates like sugars and alcoholic drinks. Since these foods are so prevalent in our diets, it’s no wonder we have so many excessive acid–related health concerns for which they sell antacids. But what’s best is to introduce more alkalizing foods into your diet, which means (as you may have guessed) fruits and vegetables. Some of the most alkalizing foods are onions, radishes, sweet potatoes, the aforementioned umeboshi plums, limes, tangerines, pineapples, grapefruits, broccoli and other green vegetables, and of course salt, though because salt is so extremely alkalizing it should be eaten almost as moderately as sugar. Sea salt and sea vegetables also contain many trace minerals that replenish those that the acidifying foods deplete. One of the best ways to get more alkaline quickly is to drink some lemon juice or water with some apple cider vinegar, or a teaspoon of umeboshi paste; these remedies will help with acid–related digestive problems very quickly. But if in general you balance out grains, fat, and meat with fresh vegetables at a meal, your digestion will improve.

4. Combine foods well. Sometimes problems like gas, stomachaches, and poor assimilation of nutrients are a result not of the ingredients in our food, but how we combine them. Since different kinds of foods break down at different times in different ways, eating them all randomly at once will cause problems. The combinations that work best are heavy foods like meat with vegetables (a sort of Atkins–like diet; no grains or beans, but also not a whole lot of fat); grains and beans with fats and cooked vegetables (rice and beans are both made more palatable and smoother to digest with the addition of some fat; like meat, they also go well with vegetables). Fruit is best eaten alone and not combined with any other foods, unless cooked, in which case it goes well with grains. Raw foods are also best eaten with other raw foods or alone, and not in the same dish as cooked foods. In general it’s important to avoid making recipes with too many different ingredients. A good experiment if you’re having digestive troubles such as those listed above is to try following these rules of food combining (having meat and vegetables for lunch, and a more vegan meal for dinner, and raw fruit as a snack).

Even more important than combining, though, may be the order in which you eat your foods. We have a custom of always eating our salad, or vegetables, as an appetizer at the beginning of a meal. This is precisely the dish we want to eat at the end! Refined grains, oils and fats, and animal foods don’t have fiber and have a tendency to stick in your digestive system without breaking down, causing weight gain and constipation, and sometimes they are assimilated into the bloodstream undigested, which can also cause serious problems. If you eat vegetables and whole grains last, they will push through these heavy foods and aid the digestive process. The foods that really should be eaten first, or at least alongside the heavy foods, are the fermented foods with enzymes like miso and sauerkraut. They will prepare the body to break down the fat and protein while the vegetables come in later to finish the job.

5. Eat mindfully. Even if you follow all these recommendations, your digestion may still suffer, unless you eat with awareness. Many people don’t even give their bodies a chance to focus on the job of digestion. We often eat under the worst of conditions: while stressed out, while driving, while watching TV or a movie, while working, or while doing any number of things that distract our attention from the food in front of us. Stress in particular draws resources away from digestion to deal with threats, real or imagined; digestion is effectively halted and stomachaches or headaches are often a result. Let’s say you are paying full attention to the meal in front of you. You might say a word of thanks before you begin, or start with a toast. You’re able to smell your meal and see it, perceptions that signal your body to be ready to receive the food. You’ll also taste it fully. I recommend always eating with this sort of mindfulness, if you can. Eat slowly, chew your food, and share the meal with someone; don’t eat alone. It’s very likely that even a high–fat diet (like that of the French, who typically take long social lunch breaks) will not cause as many problems if eaten in a relaxed and meditative mood. The best part is that when you’re paying attention, you’ll hear the automatic signals your body sends when telling you that it’s full. We don’t hear this stuff when we’re eating out of boredom or occupied with something else; and I recommend, even if you don’t change your diet at all to include bacteria or enzymes or more vegetables and alkalizers, that you at least slow down and enjoy your meals in good company.

This is a big topic, too much for me to cover in one article, but these recommendations are a basic foundation for how to overcome digestive problems and many health problems that are related (such as arthritis, osteoporosis, migraines, heart disease, autoimmune diseases in general, eczema and fatigue). As I mentioned above, I will be giving a workshop on this subject this weekend (February the 11th) at my home in Alexandria, in which I’ll discuss the above concepts in more detail and also discuss some others I didn’t have room for in this article (including more information about dairy products and digestion, chewing your food, pungent vegetables, further recommendations for eating mindfully, and recommendations for specific digestive concerns. I’ll also have samples of some of the more exotic foods I mentioned for people to try). Everyone is welcome to attend this workshop—if you are in the area, send me an email! I encourage you to come.

Animal Products

One of my recommendations for winter weather was to eat more fat and protein. For a non–vegetarian, animal products are among the best sources of these macronutrients. They are filling and strengthening, and possess plenty of iron and B vitamins. Good quality animal food also contains omega-3 fatty acids. Very active people benefit especially from animal foods and so do those who spend a lot of time in the cold. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of rightly deserved controversy surrounding the consumption of meat and other animal products. It’s been said that these foods are inherently unhealthy and lead to fatal diseases such as heart disease and cancer, as well as to related problems such as high cholesterol, strokes, and osteoporosis (see the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as an example). It’s also been said that there’s nothing wrong with animal products themselves, in fact, that they ard a traditional and integral part of a healthy diet, but that factory farming and other industrial techniques severely diminish the quality of the animal foods, as well as being responsible for animal cruelty and environmental waste (for a corresponding example, see the Weston A. Price Foundation). So what is the reality?

It’s true that almost all traditional societies have had some animal foods in their diets. From the Eskimos to the Celts to various African tribes and South Sea islanders, practically everyone ate meat or fish in some form or other. The animal foods they ate have been credited with helping them build muscle and develop proper bone and facial structure (including perfect teeth — there was no need for modern dental techniques until the 20 th century, and this is attributed to the end of the traditional consumption of raw animal fat). Animal foods also gave people enough stored protein and fat to survive periods of famine, helped them absorb vitamins and minerals, and enabled them to remain both warm and nourished in the winter. However, these people consumed these foods very differently hundreds or thousands of years ago from the way we do now. All the animals were organic, free–range, grass– and insect–fed, and were never given hormones or antibiotics. The most highly prized and sought after parts of the animals were not the muscle tissues that we eat now, but the organs that held all the vitamins and minerals. The liver, the heart, the kidneys, even the blood were essential parts of the diet. Eating the healthy organs of the animal nourished these organs in the person, making them much stronger against heart disease, liver failure, kidney stones, etc. Some of this tradition has come down to us in the practice of taking cod liver oil medicinally, even though this too has fallen out of favor.

Meat not being as readily available as it is now, people also ate smaller and fewer servings. People in warmer regions especially, with less active lives, needed to eat a lot less meat. The Eskimos could get away with eating tons of fatty animal foods, but, of course, they also lived in freezing cold igloos. The main problem with eating animal products the same way today, though, is that most animals are raised in factory farms where they live very brief, very unhealthy, very unhappy lives. Their organs are filled with toxins from the pesticides and chemicals in the food they eat, which includes not just a ton of corn and soy (common allergens for a good reason), but leftover ground up animal products from the unused parts of other animals. There are antibiotics to keep them alive in cramped living conditions that would otherwise kill them off, and hormones to make them constantly grow bigger and fatter. I don’t think I would want to eat a liver that has to process all that stuff, let alone a raw liver! No wonder they warn you to cook the meat to death — you’re cooking some unhealthy bacteria to death too. Even the muscle meat of these animals is nutritionally far poorer because of the diet that they are fed. Cows are meant to eat grass, which has vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cows that eat nutritionally empty food are correspondingly nutritionally empty on your plate. Finally, I don’t approve of eating animals that have been subject to needlessly cruel treatment, in which they are mutilated or artificially inseminated without any thought to the way they are naturally meant to live. I would not be surprised if there are additional health ramifications for eating an animal that led an unhappy life, or if there turns out to be a connection between the depression that afflicts so many Americans and the depression that exists in the animals they eat.

So, are animal foods healthy and good for you? I think they certainly can be, but you can see it depends on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is whether the animal itself was healthy and happy, and on a healthy diet of its own. Given that the meat, milk, eggs, or cheese did come from a health animal, we should also take into account how much we eat, whether we balance it with enough vegetables and other foods, and whether we’re just eating a lot of steaks or occasionally trying something like the liver. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of heart attacks out there went significantly down if people switched to organic, grass–fed, free–range meat with omega-3 fatty acids, which act like antifreeze in your arteries, and therefore balance out the saturated fat of the animal.

Some organic meat is available from health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods. However, I think it’s best if you can find a local farmer. The website www.localharvest.org has a national database of farmers selling their own locally grown animal products from family farms. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a section on their website where they list local providers of high–quality animal food: go tohttp://www.westonaprice.org/localchapters/index.html.

Sometimes it may seem like organic animal products are very expensive compared to their conventional counterparts. However, for conventional animal products, there is a “cost” of selling so cheaply: that cost is the practice of factory farming and all its flaws. The difference in price between the two is made up in the overcrowding of the conventional animals, the poor quality feed, the environmental waste, and the animal cruelty. These are practices that the manufacturers of the meat industry (they really do seem like manufacturers, not farmers at all) implemented in order to beat the competition and sell their meat at an artificially low price. What I recommend is eating fewer animal products but buying higher quality. I would also note that if you go out to a restaurant and order a steak, it’s not going to be organic, but you still pay about as much for that steak as you would for an organic steak at the supermarket that’s twice as big. Plus, at most restaurants they probably overcook it. One last advantage to point out with organic, free–range meat: because it’s been raised in healthier, disease–free conditions, cooking it a little more on the rare, juicy side isn’t cause for worry — just for pleasure.

The Edible Kitchen

One step in developing a healthy diet and lifestyle includes reviewing your kitchen tools, and asking yourself the important question: Would I eat this?

Of course, we don’t sit down to chew on pots and pans (though the sight of certain Le Creuset pots, or copper-bottomed pans, can make my wife and I drool), but there’s a very close connection between the health of your food and what you use to prepare it. Having cookware you like can influence how much you cook for yourself. It can also influence how your food tastes, and what kind of meals you choose to make. It can change how you enjoy your food overall. For most of college I carried around a large Chinese bowl that I could use to eat an entire meal (soup, rice and beans with broccoli, chicken, etc). I would think to myself that if this bowl ever broke I would be devastated. But why am I asking this silly question about eating your cookware? Well, that’s just what we do, in small amounts, anyway. If your food has ever tasted plastic-y following, say, microwaving it in a Tupperware container, you know what I mean. I find that one of the best ways to inspire people to eat better is to create an inspiring environment for making food, and that starts with a few simple tools that are sturdy and safe to cook with.

All cooking tools used to be made with naturally occurring materials, starting with clay, a substance that has been known to have healing properties when applied orally or on the skin. Being fireproof, earthenware could be used to boil water and cook food, though it is capable of cracking and doesn’t heat very evenly. Metal cookware, developed later, doesn’t have these flaws, though only metals that can be heated to normal cooking temperatures without undergoing a chemical reaction are suitable. Copper is unanimously the best cooking metal, due to its high conductivity, though it is usually layered with stainless steel to prevent reactions. These pots are very expensive. Cookware that is 100% stainless, while it does not react chemically, does not conduct heat quite as well. A better conductor that is less expensive than copper is Cast iron. Cast iron does not heat very quickly, but the heat spreads evenly and does not diffuse rapidly. With seasoning, it also gradually forms a nonstick coating. For this reason stainless is best for jobs like boiling water for pasta, while cast iron is better for sautéing or for bean soups such as chili.

The beautiful thing about stainless and cast iron (and copper too, if I could afford it) are that they will last forever, and become more valuable and effective with use. Ultimately your goal is a seamless blend of cookware and food. Sautéing with a cast iron pan will undoubtedly result in little flecks of iron – an essential mineral – in your food. The act of seasoning suggests that you could even list the cast iron pan with the ingredients in a recipe.

There are some other cooking tools out there which I wouldn’t recommend. Some cookware is made from aluminum, a metal which has undergone some notoriety because scientists have noticed a correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and significant aluminum levels in the brain. This is not proof that aluminum is responsible, but it’s worth mentioning that, unlike some metals, such as zinc, magnesium, iron, etc., aluminum is completely unnecessary for function of the human body. Nevertheless it’s found in everything, from pans to baking powder to deodorant to antacids to even water supplies. Since we know stainless steel and cast iron are harmless, I’d advise sticking with them.

Teflon, patented and manufactured by the company DuPont, has a couple of strikes against it. The Teflon-making process creates a significant amount of environmental waste, including a carcinogen byproduct known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. PFOA has been found in the drinking water of communities near DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing plants. For this reason alone I would suggest staying away from Teflon. I think that while we’re making choices towards improving our health, we should also be considering how those choices affect the health of others. However, there are two additional concerns related to cooking with Teflon. One is that pieces of Teflon can flake off the pan and end up in your food. The manufacturer claims that these particles will pass through your body unimpeded and not cause any health problems, but it’s not clear to me that ingesting pieces of a synthetic plastic will not impede your body’s function.

Teflon is also capable of releasing harmful toxins when heated. Since most cooking pans are meant to encounter heat at some point in fulfilling their function, this can represent a problem. There is some debate about at what temperature Teflon releases toxic fumes; the manufacturer claims that Teflon is stable up to 600 fahrenheit. However, the fumes from Teflon pans have been known to kill caged birds at temperatures of 350-400 fahrenheit, normal cooking temperatures. This is sort of a case of “canaries in the mineshaft”; while Teflon won’t kill us like it will kill a small bird, it will release fumes that can cause flu symptoms, headaches, and contribute to the number of toxins in our system. Compare this to heating cast iron or steel. What happens? They get hot, that’s it.

The “advantage” of Teflon is that it is non-stick. However, a cast iron pan closely approximates the non-stick qualities of Teflon without any of the chemicals or toxins. Directions for taking care of your cast-iron pan are in the recipe section. Some people like Teflon because it enables them to cook with less, or without, oil. But considering that oil and fat are now being found out to be much healthier for us than has been thought in the past, it seems worth sacrificing the fat-free diet so that you can go on the toxin-free one. Teflon is also not that cost-effective as the Teflon degrades and the pans will have to be replaced over time, creating more waste. If you’re going to eat and breathe your pans, choose cast iron and stainless. Wouldn’t it be nice at the age of 70 or 80, to still have the pan you made all your delicious meals in? Like you, it will only have gotten better with age.

Cooking with Stainless Steel:

Food can easily stick to stainless steel frying pans. To reduce food sticking in stove-top skillets, wait to add food until the cooking oil’s surface has a wave of movement to it but is not smoldering. Add food carefully to maintain an oil layer beneath it, and do not attempt to move food until it loosens (as it cooks) and can be easily flipped or moved. Also, use a metal spatula.

Cooking with Cast Iron:

A cast iron skillet should be seasoned both to prevent rust and to provide a non-stick coating. Seasoning consists in applying a layer of oil, such as sesame oil, coconut oil, olive oil, or organic animal fat (not fish oil) to the surface of the pan with a paper towel (not too much – just the lightest layer, or it will get sticky and gross). When washing the skillet, do not use soap or use it very lightly. Use instead just a scrubber or brush with hot water, quickly dry the pan (with a towel or on the stove), and reapply the layer of oil. It can take a few seasonings for the non-stick capabilities to take effect.