Eating Right on Vacation

Whenever summer rolls around, I inevitably hear from my clients during this week or that that they didn’t eat well because they were on vacation. In fact, eating right is extremely difficult on vacation. It’s not just that whole, natural foods are hard to find when traveling; we can also get into a celebratory mode in which we decide to eat and drink what we want and worry about the consequences later, because we’re supposed to be having fun. To a certain extent, that’s a good attitude to have; if we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re eating right, we’ll make ourselves sick . But if we eat too poorly, we can easily come down with digestive problems, headaches, low energy, weak immunity, etc., both during and after our vacations.  Naturally, we don’t want to be sick during this time; we want to be refreshed. So what can be done? Here are a few tips that can help make your vacation this year or next a little more enjoyable:

1. Make meals in advance. The best way to ensure that you feel good during vacation is to bring some of your own food. However, you may not want to spend all your time cooking. If you’re staying somewhere that has a kitchen or kitchenette, I recommend making balanced meals in advance, freezing them, and then thawing them out while you’re vacationing. In the weeks leading up to vacation, just make a double portion of a meal that you’d like to have while vacationing, and freeze the leftovers. This year, for our vacation, my wife and I are bringing with us homemade frozen red lentil sauce with chicken, chili with ground beef, shepherd’s pie, and Bolognese sauce. Since we have access to a kitchen, we’ll also be able to bring and make brown rice, greens, and other simple supplementary foods, but it won’t involve a lot of cooking time. The net result is that, since we’ll be nourished by these balanced meals, we’ll have plenty of energy for the things we want to do, and we’ll still feel good when we get home!

2. Bring your own healthy snacks. Vacationers tend to eat lots of snack foods. I recommend that you make it a priority, if possible, to eat three balanced meals a day. But part of the joy of vacation is snacking. Fortunately, there are many healthy snacks out there that can be a good supplement to your diet (and if you are very physically active during vacation, you may need them in addition to regular meals). Examples include fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds, trail mix, popcorn, yogurt with honey, homemade ice cream, lemonade, or sorbet, smoothies, dark chocolate, corn chips with guacamole or salsa, cheese, olives and pickles.

3. When eating out, choose what’s easy to digest. Eating out is another pleasure of vacationing, and sometimes it’s nice to get a comfort food even though it may not be so good for you. But if you’re eating out because you have no other choice and you simply want to avoid feeling gross, stay away from foods that are deep-fried, made with white flour or sugar, or contain dairy products. Instead, choose meat, fish, or poultry, and vegetables. If the restaurant has brown rice or whole wheat bread, then you can go with that as well. If you follow this advice, you’ll be more likely to maintain your energy and digestive health in the hours and days that follow.


The Sunscreen Debate

Yes, so what did I say in my first article? Go out in the sun. But what does that mean?

I was asked to write a little about whether there are healthy kinds of sunscreen. So I obligingly sat down to compose something that laid out the situation, and then realized that I really had no idea what to say, though I had a vague, peripheral sensation that there was a controversy about this. Having since done some research, I now have a very solid view of what I think is going on, and of what I recommend.

Most people in this country use sunscreen. I grew up having it applied to me whether I liked or not, and never really thought about it until college, when I was taking trips to the beach and was just too lazy to apply any. Sometimes I got a little burned, but largely I did not. I would wear a shirt when I felt the sun was getting too strong, but of course I didn’t wear one while swimming. My experience led me to wonder why it was necessary at all. What did people do before it first became widely promoted in the fifties?

Sunscreen contains synthetic chemicals that are capable of absorbing one frequency of the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun (UVB rays), thus blocking them from damaging your skin. Sunscreen makers claim that this radiation is responsible for the skin cancer epidemic that we suffer from in America; that is, that people who do not use sunscreen are not only in danger of getting a burn, but, well, dying. However, it is possible, and has been asserted, that the synthetic chemical compounds in sunscreen are absorbed by your skin and generate copious amounts of free radicals, thus doing more to cause cancer than the sun itself. Is this true? To my knowledge, no scientific study has been carried out to determine the harmful effect of sunscreen on humans, though some have been done on animals. However, I don’t like to resort to scientific studies to make a point, since every article you read has an arsenal of them and it often amounts to simply an argument from authority. Instead, I’d like to call attention to a few things that should be pretty obvious to us all.

The skin is both an organ of elimination and absorption. This is why many medicines and herbs (such as Arnica) can be applied both orally and on the surface of the skin. You are, in a sense, eating a little of anything that you apply to your skin – usually about thirty-five percent. This includes sunscreen. The synthetic chemicals in sunscreen are toxic to the body – not only can they generate free radicals on exposure to the sun, but they are very hard for the body to eliminate, and may get stored away in places that will eventually become tumors. By eventually I mean if you’re slathering it on a lot, every day – I don’t mean to be as alarmist about sunscreen like sunscreen makers are alarmist about the sun. But some people do overdo it, and that could be part of the reason why even though everyone uses sunscreen, skin cancer rates have dropped…not at all.

Another point is that while getting sun is very important for your health, getting sunburned a lot will damage your skin and eventually cause photoaging (that wrinkled, leathery look). Gradually building up to a protective tan (please, not at a tanning salon!) while wearing clothing most of the time is a better idea. Using an organic sunscreen without any reactive chemicals, or coating your skin with olive oil or coconut oil before going to the beach also seems to me like a safer alternative (though it’s true that these substances are not as strong). The process should be even more gradual if you are fair-skinned and have the genetically low melanin levels of a Scandinavian. But all this is aside to the real point: why do most people get so sunburned all the time? You may already know the answer. It is poor nutrition. Yes, your diet!

For most of human history, we were out in the sun a lot, so our bodies adjusted and evolved, and adapted to this circumstance on many different levels. But we also weren’t eating trans fats and refined, processed foods. While it’s true that the sun does do some damage to the skin after lengthy exposure, people who have large numbers of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in their diet will have not only beautiful skin but a system equipped to repair the sun’s damage quickly and efficiently. Some sources of the fatty acids: fish and fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, chard, and parsley, any animal product from an animal that has been grass-fed (such as cow’s milk from grass-fed cows and beef from grass-fed beef), pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Antioxidant foods (the ones that stop free radicals) include dark green leafy vegetables (again), sprouts, berries, sea vegetables, and really any food that contains high levels of vitamins E, A, C, and B.

In a nutshell, then, my advice is: don’t get burned; don’t use commercial sunscreen; but eat well, gradually work up to a tan, apply an organic oil or sun block to your body, and not only will you be healthy, but all that sun will ratchet up your serotonin levels and you might find yourself quite a bit happier, too!

More on Seasonal Eating (and Living)

Here’s an update on what’s growing right now in the Northeast: almost everything. This can be a bit overwhelming, but if you can find a way to fit snap peas, beets & beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, corn, cucumbers, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, chard, turnip greens, blueberries, cherries, peaches, raspberries, and plums into your diet, you’ll probably be feeling extremely good. You could live solely on the abundance of fruits and vegetables available now and actually, that might not be such a bad idea. If you work in a freezing air-conditioned office it gets confusing (you might be craving hot soups, hunks of meat and fried food from 9 to 5), but anyone spending any time outside would benefit from eating fresh, raw plant food. Even the harder root vegetables can be juiced or sliced up very thin for a salad. Of course, I recommend getting most of this food locally grown if you can – that’s really the whole point.

What I’m interested in talking about this month, however, is not just food but also other aspects of seasonal living. This will require me to write a little about the Five Element Theory, which is an integral part of the ancient Chinese medical system. Essentially, the theory states that all energy or substance can be categorized according to the above-mentioned five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), each of which has its own unique characteristics. For example, the five seasons (spring, summer, late summer, autumn, and winter) correspond to the elements above. Summer, being aligned with the Fire element, is naturally the hottest month. The system expands to include bodily organs, colors, foods, sounds, tastes, directions, phase of development, and emotions. The theory comes from centuries of observations of relationships between nature and the physical body, and is applied clinically in traditional Chinese medicine. For example, the wood element, linked to spring, is also the element of anger, the sour taste, the tendons and sinews, and the liver and the gallbladder as well as the eyes. This means that a person suffering from bloodshot eyes or with a lot of otherwise inexplicable anger might be in truth suffering from a stressed liver.

I’ve mentioned this because when I write about the given season we’re in, I’ll sometimes refer to other things that share the same element. The season we are in now – summer – is closely associated with the emotion of joy. This means that summer is really the season when doing things that make you joyful is especially recommended. It’s also the time to take care of the small intestine and the heart, the organs belonging to the fire element, and the time to sweat a lot of things out (each element is also paired with a bodily fluid). It’s no accident that summer is when a lot of weddings happen (a topic that’s been on my mind lately). Some things you can do to be more in tune with this season: wake up early, spend time out in the sun, cook a variety of brightly colored food (but lighter food – for example, if you eat whole grains, try summer grains such as millet or corn rather than wheat, rice, or buckwheat), set up some flowers in your home, go to the beach, play with your friends, watch heartwarming comedies while eating popcorn (don’t microwave it, though). You can make up your own list of things that make you joyful – then go out and do the things on it! And if you are confused about the dangers of being out in the sun – read the last article.

There’s a lot more to the five element theory than what I have space to go into above – but if you’re interested in hearing more, let me know. Paul Pitchford’s book Healing with Whole Foods has probably the best analysis of it that I know, and Annemarie Colbin’s Food and Healing also has a good treatment (aren’t these book titles sounding a little redundant?).

Sneezing Like Crazy: Pollen Allergies

I’ll just come out and say it: I have a loud sneeze. Something about my constitution causes me to really let loose when the wrong thing gets in my lungs. Like pollen. (Thanks to this peculiar characteristic of mine, I’ve been able to do a lot of accidental research on the psychological conditions under which people stop saying “bless you”: usually by the third sneeze).I’ve always had lots of problems with pollen, problems that manifest themselves very visibly as teary eyes, a runny nose, and a general bleary, cloudy feeling of fatigue that on most days last summer left me wading through the pollen-thick humid air half-blindly like a swimmer without goggles in an overchlorinated pool. I prefer not to take conventional medications like Claritin, so for many years I’ve just sneezed my way through the summer with some help from homeopathic medicines. But this year those allergies have been gone. Totally gone.

What did I do differently? Around May, when I started giving sugar blues workshops, I brought along some raw local honey as an alternative sweetener. After a while it occurred to me that, hmm, I’m recommending this to other people, maybe I should try it too. I started eating it right after a workout, the best time to consume refined carbohydrates. Then I started wanting to it more (yes…sugar is like that). After a few weeks I felt like I’d had enough, however, and it was then that I noticed that my allergy symptoms were gone.

Why did this happen? Raw honey contains all the pollen, dust, and molds that cause the allergies – local honey has the specific pollen that’s causing your specific allergies. Eating a teaspoon a day will cause you to build up immunity. I think it’s best if you combine this with some aerobic exercise so that the sugar gets put to some use. Honey also happens to be good for ulcers, bronchitis, coughs, and asthma. But I repeat – don’t get the filtered, processed kind – get the raw honey or honeycomb that is almost solid, and see if you can get some that is made in your state.

General Guidelines for Healthy Eating: Seasonal Eating

What makes a balanced meal? The standard theory shared by most nutritionists and dieticians is that it consists of a certain ratio of protein, carbs, and fats. The government’s website will give you more specific details based on your age and sex. Diet-book authors and diet gurus argue back and forth about whether you should have more carbs, no carbs, lots of protein, less protein, low fat, or gobs of fat. In truth, the amount of each differs for different people. And equally important is what kind of fat, carbs, etc., you eat. But there is much more to the story of balancing a meal than just these categories. There are many, many ways to balance a meal, and all that means is to put together some food that will make you feel good – or “balanced” – in terms of energy, awareness, strength, attitude, and health. You can take into consideration the season, the weather, your lifestyle, job, current state of health, the colors of the food, the tastes, the method of preparation, how hungry you are, even your mood. Is this starting to sound complicated? Well, don’t worry, because the choices you will make when taking these things into consideration are all very simple and intuitive and. Let’s take, for example, seasonal eating.

The theory behind seasonal eating is based on our experience of balance in nature. Plants grow and animals thrive in response to the conditions around them. Melons grow in the hot summer and are proportionately cool. The warming energy of root vegetables sustains them even into the winter. Aside from the fact that they will be fresher (having not necessarily traveled as far) and tastier (having been grown under the sun, not in a greenhouse), the in-season foods that you eat will impart their energy to you and help you thrive in the same conditions in which they grew and prospered. Generally if you eat something out of season it’s been flown halfway around the world – from California or South America – a process that uses up a lot of energy and resources. Now, if these were the best foods for you that would be one thing. But the fact that your body will appreciate the local, seasonal foods more than, say, the tropical foods, is another reason to cut down on consumption of food that has traveled through a change in climate to get to you, regardless of how appealingly exotic it may sound. Most people will agree that whether it’s happening or not, climate change is not such a good thing.

But this is not a hard and fast rule. For example, even though they come from far away, I love avocados. If you’re a vegetarian, they’re an excellent source of fat in your diet. There’s even a recipe for guacamole in this newsletter. But if I eat avocados more often than other fruits, I don’t feel so great. This just shows that there is still a lot of space for personal decisions within these general principles.

We are currently in the month of June (that is, if I get this newsletter finished in time. Originally it was a May newsletter). So what are some options if you live, say, in New York City, like me? I checked the farmers’ market website and here’s what they are harvesting now: asparagus, beets (and beet greens), broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mesclun, peas, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, turnip greens, and strawberries. There’s plenty of variety there; if you choose to eat more seasonally, it’s a great way to discover new fruits or vegetables that you wouldn’t have an excuse to cook otherwise.

For more information on this kind of topic there’s Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons, and John Douillard’s Ayurvedic diet book The 3-Season Diet.