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 Virtues of January

The post–holiday, post–solstice time is when many people begin to feel low energy, depression and tiredness. The weather is colder, the days are short, we’re exhausted from our parties, and spring seems like a long way away. Colds and coughing are widespread. It’s that time of year when people get sick. Millions of Americans are said to suffer from “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” a phenomenon where we feel generally unhappy for no obvious reason.

Is it supposed to be this way? I don’t think so. This is a time of year that we can look forward to and celebrate just as much as any other. It’s true that in the harsh and cold season of winter our bodies and minds are more vulnerable than at other times. We’re likely to have eaten more junk because of the holidays and we’re not getting as much time outside in the sun. So if you tend to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, this is when your body will start to say “I’ve had enough.” In my opinion, “SAD” is often nothing more than the above. To avoid getting sick or depressed, we must make more of an effort to really take care of ourselves during the winter months. The body is meant to always function well with proper care. If you’ve been under a lot of stress, and have been eating a lot of sugar or other unhealthy food (two things that often happen around the holidays), your body will probably take this time to get sick and eliminate the excess toxins created by the stress and the food. This is a natural, healthy process of the body. Fevers, coughing, and other symptoms of sickness are signs of the body trying to clean you out. Unfortunately, not all of us have the leisure to let ourselves go through this process, and end up medicating ourselves in order to postpone the healing process. I recommend taking time off if you get sick, relaxing, and letting your body heal itself as much as you can. But if this isn’t easy for you, the best plan is to try and stay healthy in the first place.

A good way to look for clues to what it means to be healthy in the winter is to think about what’s going on in nature. Animals are hibernating; seeds are staying warm deep underground. This is a time for planning and preparing, and protecting your energy. Sleeping more and scheduling less is a good idea. Keeping as warm as possible is also important. Exercising will get your blood flowing and help you save on heat bills. Taking an alternating hot and cold shower in the morning does the same thing. Don’t forget to wear plenty of layers when you go outside.

In terms of cooking, warm foods and drinks are the best. I would not recommend eating a lot of raw, uncooked food and fruit at this time of year. Making soup is an excellent idea; so is roasting or baking your food in the oven. I also drink a lot of herbal tea with warming spices such as ginger. It’s common to eat more protein and fat at this time, such as meat, grains with beans, roasted nuts, and fried foods; but make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, especially root vegetables: onions, beets, carrots, radishes, burdock root, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, and winter squashes, so that you get enough vitamins and minerals.

The organs to nourish at this time of year are the kidneys and the bladder. To keep them healthy, always have a source of clean drinking water around you at work, home, or when traveling. You may want more salt on your food in the winter, but try to use sea salt, because sea salt still has natural minerals in it. A moderate amount of salt nourishes the kidneys, but too much can stress them out. I also recommend taking this time to try cooking some sea vegetables. They are available at the health food store, and the companies who sell them always think to include some recipes on the package. Sea vegetables survive in very cold conditions in the ocean; they will help you fight off the winter cold. The main ones are kombu, arame, hijiki, dulse, nori, and wakame. They come dried and, except nori, should be soaked before being eaten, but after that, they go wonderfully well with beans, in soups, stirfries, or as condiments.

Some people have been known to feel less depressed in the winter by sitting in front of light boxes that simulate sunlight. In my opinion, best of all is to try and get half an hour of sunlight every day. We don’t spend much time in the sun even during the rest of the year, so when the days get shorter such that we’re inside for all the daylight hours, we get no sun at all. This is probably one of the reasons why the winter season is associated with depression. Try to sit out in the sun during lunchtime or whenever else you have a free moment during the day, and your mood will probably improve regardless of how happy you are normally. This is less expensive than a light–box, comes with fresh air, and you know it’s authentic sunlight.

The time of year we’re in now can be just as pleasant and special, in its own way, as any other. I look forward to the changes in lifestyle and diet that come with January, and I enjoy hibernating as much as I can. Quiet, internal activity is the order of the day. You may want to start planting some ideas for the future. Most importantly, though, get some rest, and do things you enjoy.

If you do get sick, I recommend a ginger compress. The compress facilitates and speeds the healing process, rather than fighting against it. Making one is very simple.

Ginger Compress
This recipe is from Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. The compress stimulates blood and body circulation, helps loosen and dissolve stagnated toxic matter, and soothes and relieves various internal organs, aches, and pains. Especially good for the kidneys, stomach, and intestines. Place a handful of fresh grated ginger in a cheesecloth and squeeze the ginger juice into a pot containing 1 gallon of very hot water. Keep the water below boiling or the power of the ginger will be diminished. Let simmer for about 5 minutes. Then dip the middle part of a cotton hand towel into the ginger water by holding both ends. Wring the towel to squeeze out the excess water and apply, very hot but not uncomfortably hot, to the area of the body needing treatment (such as the kidneys). A second, dry towel can be placed on top of the wet towel to reduce heat loss. When the wet towel cools, remove and replace with a fresh hot towel. Repeat this every few minutes for about twenty minutes, or until the skin becomes very red.

A Note on Christmas

Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is here, and that means lots of stress. Theoretically, the holidays are a time to connect with your spiritual side, take a break from work, see your family and friends, and give a few sincere gifts. But what happens is that the gift-giving part is pushed into prominence by retailers, and Christmas especially becomes all about shopping and spending. When all the focus is on the gifts, you get stuck with a lot of stuff you might not want, while frantically trying to find stuff others might like, which you probably can’t afford, and the obligation becomes more powerful than the sentiment of generosity. Then there’s the emphasis on display: you see Christmas wreaths and lights all over the place, which seem more bent on urging you to shop for your own than simply looking nice. Through a strange turn of events, it often seems like the real Scrooge is the one encouraging you to meet all these Christmas obligations. The stress can drive us to eat a ton of sugar and possibly come down with something called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some of my suggestions for taking a real holiday:

Celebrate some of the stress-free aspects of Christmas: sing traditional carols and play Christmas music, use your time off to go for walks in the snow or woods, and maybe build a fire in the fireplace.

Spend time with your friends and family. Don’t worry about the gifts part, your presence is much more valuable than anything you could buy for them. Do something fun together that you will remember for a long time.

I actually think that giving gifts is one of the best parts of Christmas. But I just don’t like crowding into the mall with everyone else. Try using your own personal talents, skills, and knowledge when giving a gift: everyone has something they are good at, whether it’s making something with your hands, cooking, writing, music, art, etc. If you’re more technical you could fix someone’s computer, make them a website, etc. You could also write a letter to someone telling them all the reasons why you like them! That’s probably a gift they wouldn’t forget. Sometimes we think we’re not good enough to give someone something personal. It’s embarrassing. But how much more would you appreciate a one-of-a-kind gift than one that you could have bought on your own? Even if your personal skill happens to be making lots of money, how about something such as a museum membership, Netflix subscription, or other gift that “keeps on giving” without requiring more manufacture and waste. (By the way, when I searched for some more ideas online, almost all I found were websites selling “alternative” Christmas gifts. No! I wanted something handmade! More websites selling “handmade” gifts. How about homemade? Plenty of ideas for homemade gifts, but all slanted towards kids. What, adults are too grown up to make something?)

Christmas is supposed to be a “holy day,” celebrated as the birth of Christ. The solstice is also the time of the ancient winter festivals of Yule. The spiritual, not the material, should be the primary focus during Christmas; as such, make sure you get some time to yourself to contemplate the meaning of this time of year.

Cold Weather Living

I actually like the cold, harsh weather and long, dark evenings. They build character. Of course, they also excuse you to bundle up in front of a fire, watch movies, and sleep late. I, however, have to take extra precautions when the temperature drops. In both the Chinese and Indian traditional medicinal systems, every person is said to be born aligned to a particular season, and which season it is can be deduced from the person’s characteristics. People who easily get cold, especially in their fingers and toes, are usually winter types. This means we have an affinity for this time of year, but are also vulnerable to it. Whether you’re the winter type or not, however, here are some recommendations for staying healthy and vibrant throughout the cold:

Dress warmly: Sometimes it can be a pain to break the habit of dressing lightly. However, it’s more of the pain when the cold weakens your body and knocks you horizontal for a week. Think of it as a chance to try on clothes you’ve even forgotten you owned over the last six months. Also, think about where you usually get sick or cold (Chest cold? Ear infection? Sore throat? Fingers fall off?), and focus on covering that area in particular.

Exercise regularly: Wood-chopping is probably the best. Failing that, I recommend anything that makes you sweat, gets the blood flowing, and warms you up internally. It’s great for the heat bills, not to mention your health.

Eat cooked vegetables: Forget that raw food stuff. Cooked foods have had heat imparted to them – they’re warm. When we talk about being warm or cold, what really matters is what’s on the inside. Ever stepped out of a hot shower and been freezing cold? During the shower your body was trying to compensate by cooling down internally. Exercising also warms up your insides. Try the root vegetables especially – they will impart their winter-surviving energy to you.

Cut down on congestive dairy products and sugar: In a dry, hot climate you may crave these foods, but during a cold, wet winter you’re much more likely to suffer from chronic colds and sinus-related problems on a constant basis. This is the first half of the cure for the common cold. It is also the second half.

More protein and fat: Extra fat keeps most animals warm in the winter, and protein is necessary for building strength. Whether it’s grains and beans with olive oil or whether it’s animal products, have a little more fat than you did in the summer and late summer.

Eat naturally preserved foods: For thousands of years we’ve been finding ways to make our food last beyond the harvest season. Eating food that’s been pickled, smoked, fermented, or otherwise preserved will help you continue to get the nutrients and minerals you need through the winter.

Sleep more: If you feel like hibernating, that’s not an accident. Even if you can’t go to bed as early as you’d like, turn out the lights you’re not using and try to cut down on background noise. Don’t eat late, either; try to keep an atmosphere of near-bedtime around you. This is a time of being internal, more of input/study than output/action.

Finally, ginger tea and raw garlic will cure everything if you don’t follow these recommendations. The chicken soup listed below might help too.