Health Food Store Shopping List

In the old days, health food stores were small, grungy, lovable, hole–in–the–wall establishments that carried a few basics for health food nuts: organic carrots, tofu, brown rice, sea vegetables, carob chips, etc. As healthy eating became more popular, these stores multiplied to the point where almost every major town in America had a local health food store. With that multiplication came expansion: in addition to rice, beans and greens, you could also acquire healthier versions of the chips, crackers and cookies carried by conventional supermarkets.

In recent years, the health food store market has been cornered by Whole Foods, a mega–chain that drove many smaller stores out of business. While Whole Foods has made health food more accessible for many people, it may have missed the point of the original health food store. At many Whole Foods stores, it has become almost impossible to find bulk brown rice, or macrobiotic foods, within the countless aisles of organic soda or breakfast cereal made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. While those processed foods are better than the counterparts you’d find at the local Walmart, they signify that just because a food is sold in a health food store doesn’t mean it’s healthy. What follows is my slimmed–down guide to the essential foods you need from your local health food store:

Fruit. The best tasting and most nutritious fruit is fresh, local and organic, qualities which you can usually only find in a health food store or at a farmer’s market. Make local and in season your priority, followed by organic. Fruit can be expensive, but it’s worth the cost. If you need to, shop at a conventional supermarket for fresh fruit rather than go without entirely.

Vegetables. Health food stores carry a wide variety of fresh, local and organic vegetables. When purchasing vegetables, you should try to incorporate a variety of different vegetable groups, which include greens (such as kale or collards), roots (like carrots and beets), bulbs (ex. onions or celery), gourds (squashes), and nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc). Vegetables should generally be stored in the crisper at the bottom of your refrigerator. Greens need to be kept in a plastic bag with the air pressed out, and they should be wrapped in a paper towel or two first so that the water on them is soaked up. Greens can be kept until they turn yellow (which takes about a week or two). Other vegetables will stay good for several weeks but generally it’s best to use them quickly, as they lose nutrition over time.

Grains and Beans. Whole grains and beans are kept in bulk bins, and are very inexpensive when purchased this way. You can get much of your calories and protein from these foods, which take some time to cook (especially beans, which need to be soaked and then boiled), but they last a long time and once cooked, can keep in the fridge for several days. Uncooked dry beans and grains keep for a year or more.

Nuts and Dried Fruit. These are good choices for snack foods, but they are not meal replacements. Only snack between meals if you’re still hungry despite having had a solid breakfast, lunch and dinner. These foods can also be expensive. Don’t try to cut back on fresh fruit, vegetables, or all–natural animal products so that you can buy snack foods.

Dairy Products. Raw dairy products from healthy cows are best, but in most states these cannot be sold in stores. Cheese is an exception—choose unpasteurized cheese when it is available. If you don’t have a source of raw milk, grass–fed organic pasteurized milk is the next best thing (non–homogenized is good too). Butter is best when cultured and unsalted. Yogurt should have no added sugar; add your own natural sweetener (such as raw honey) instead.

Fish. Fish is very good for you if it is wild caught, rather than farm raised. Wild caught fish is more expensive, so you may have to have it only occasionally, which is okay, especially since mercury in many species of fish is a concern. Sardines are a low–mercury, less expensive option.

Poultry, Pork, Beef, Eggs. Meat and eggs can be an important part of your diet and a good source of protein and fat; the meat must come from a healthy animal. For poultry, choose organic and free–range (or at least free–range), and hormone and antibiotic free. Pork should be organic if possible. Beef should be organic, but more importantly, grass–fed. Eggs should be from organic and free–range chickens. Be sure to check out local options.

Herbs and Spices, Salt, Natural Sweeteners. All of these condiments should be staples in your kitchen. Start building up a collection of herbs and spices and natural sweeteners (esp. raw honey), and use sea salt instead of regular salt. Buying herbs and spices in bulk is more cost–effective and you can buy less of the ones you won’t use as much. Most health food stores have a bulk spice section separate from bulk grains and beans.

Macriobiotic Foods. The original standbys of the health food store, these foods can now be difficult to find. However, they are usually grouped together, and include tamari (a natural form of soy sauce), brown rice vinegar, umeboshi plum paste, tekka, gomashio, and sea vegetables (nori, kombu, wakame, arame, hijiki). In the cold section you can also usually find the macrobiotic foods miso, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and mochi. These foods originate in the traditional Japanese diet and are all very nutritious and beneficial to health.

Oils, vinegars, sauces, nut butters, pastas, pickles, etc. Not all foods you buy need to be whole foods. It’s not convenient to buy your own olives to make olive oil, or grind your own peanuts for nut butter, for example, and you wouldn’t necessarily come up with a better quality product. In this sense some pre–made foods are perfectly fine, as long the ingredients themselves are whole foods. Peanut butter that contains peanuts and salt—fine. Peanut butter containing peanuts, salt, and hydrogenated vegetable oil—not so good. Pasta that is made from whole wheat is much better than pasta made from white flour. Olive oil should be unrefined and unfiltered rather than filtered and refined. Generally, the fewer ingredients—and the more whole–food the ingredients—the better.

Bread. People are always confused about what bread to buy, but the answer is fairly simple. Choose bread that is made from 100% whole grain flour (i.e. whole wheat, whole rye, etc.). If it says simply “wheat flour” or “whole wheat flour and white flour,” skip it. 100% whole grain flour molds quickly, since it is so nutritious, so keep it in the refrigerator or freezer. In fact, many whole grain breads are kept in the freezer section of the health food store. Don’t be afraid to try something new!

Supplements. If you eat the foods listed above, you really don’t need supplements. You may occasionally benefit from certain herbs, if you happen to be sick. But the most important thing is to be eating a good diet so you don’t get sick in the first place. When it comes to injuries such as bruises, cuts, stings/bug bites, and burns, the supplement section has some effective remedies such as arnica, calendula, stingstop, and aloe vera.

If any of the foods listed above catch your attention, in that you’ve never heard of them or at least have no idea how to incorporate them into your diet, then be sure to contact me with your questions!

Modern Day Malnutrition: Anemia

In a country as wealthy as the United States, with food so abundant and affordable, it seems strange that anyone could suffer from malnutrition. And yet, not only is malnutrition a common occurrence, even the most well–off of our citizens are susceptible to it. The same goes for other developed nations. But it’s not happening because we’re not getting enough food. Developed countries rarely, if ever, have famines and food shortages. Rather, it’s the nature of our food that is causing this problem. Thanks to modern food processing methods, developed countries produce a plentiful supply of food that is high in calories—sugar, white flour, corn syrup, and animal products from animals fattened up on soybeans and corn. While in centuries past, many people died for want of calories, we have more than we could ever eat, and at an affordable price. Unfortunately, those same modern processing methods, though they give us cheap calories, eliminate much of the nutrition from foods. Nutrients are just as important for survival as calories, so with too much of the latter and not enough of the former, it’s easy to end up both overweight and undernourished. You can be eating too much and not enough at the same time! It doesn’t help that, thanks to the structure of our society, high–calorie/low–nutrient foods are the cheapest and the most convenient.

Anemia is a good example of the malnutrition that runs rampant despite the prosperity of our country. Anemia is a blood disorder with symptoms including fatigue, pallor, depression, headaches, lower back pain, dizziness, easy bruising and slow healing, loss of sex drive, brittle nails, hair loss, thin and dry hair, dry skin, and, in extreme cases, shortness of breath and palpitations. The disease is most commonly caused by a lack of dietary iron, folic acid, and vitamin B12. Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, a protein that makes it possible for red blood cells to carry oxygen to our tissues. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are essential nutrients for the formation of the red blood cells themselves. Though such nutrients are readily present in whole, natural foods, anemia affects an estimated 3 to 6 million Americans.

One reason why such deficiencies exist even in people who can afford whole foods is simply a lack of knowledge. Most doctors don’t receive a thorough education in nutrition, let alone the average American, and most people don’t realize that eliminating the cause of their symptoms could simply be a matter of eating better. Another reason is that our society is structured so that processed foods are cheaper and more convenient than more nutritious whole foods. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find even one anemia sufferer who would really rather endure fatigue, depression and back pain than make some changes in diet and lifestyle that would not just eliminate those symptoms, but make for a more satisfying mealtime as well.

If you are (or think you may be) anemic, nutrient deficiency is very likely the cause. To increase your intake of the nutrients you need, try these recommendations:

–Add more leafy green vegetables to your diet. These include kale, collard greens, cabbage, bok choy, swiss chard and spinach. Leafy greens contain both iron and folic acid, as well as manganese, another important nutrient for iron absorption. They also contain chlorophyll, a nutrient similar to hemin, the pigment that forms hemoglobin when combined with protein.

–Add more iron rich red meat, such as lamb and beef, to your diet. These meats also contain vitamin B12 and the protein needed for forming hemoglobin. However, meat should be from grass–fed animals. Animals that did not eat their greens will have little iron in their own blood, and the meat from anemic animals won’t help you very much to overcome your own anemia. Especially rich in nutrients are organs such as the liver and kidneys, and since blood is formed from the bone marrow, try making a soup with beef soup bones containing marrow.

–Seafood is another good source of iron, B12 and protein, but it should be wild caught. Organic eggs and dairy products from grass–fed cows can also provide the same nutrients.

–Other foods that contain the nutrients you need: whole grains, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and especially sea vegetables such as nori and kombu.

Whether you’re anemic or not, eating more of these foods will without a doubt increase your energy and improve your mood, and since they contain such a wide variety of nutrients, they will address other types of deficiencies as well. So give it a try, and email me with any questions!

Baking With Whole Wheat Flour

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that white flour is a major contributor to weight gain (not to mention heart disease and diabetes). Does that mean that in order for your health to improve, you have to give up delicious foods like cakes, pies, cookies, and bread? Not at all! If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll also know that adding healthy foods is much more important than subtracting unhealthy foods. But is it possible for baked goods to be healthy? Absolutely! It all depends on the quality of the ingredients. Traditionally, baked goods were made with whole–grain flour, which, unlike its refined counterpart, contains nutrients and fiber in addition to carbohydrates. Not only are baked goods made with whole grains more nutritious and filling than those made with white flour, but they possess a richer, more complex flavor, and provide you with steady, lasting energy rather than a brief carbohydrate high followed by a sudden crash. So what’s the catch? Well, it’s been so long since baked goods were commonly made with whole–grain ingredients that most people no longer know how to do it. To alleviate this problem, we’ve provided some useful tips you can rely on for substituting whole grain flour when you’re using a recipe that calls for white flour (your local health food store will carry the whole–grain flours to which we refer):

–Often a recipe will call for all–purpose flour, which is more or less equal parts bread flour (high gluten) and pastry flour (low gluten). As a substitute for all–purpose flour, just mix equal parts whole wheat bread flour and whole wheat pastry flour. Buy it freshly ground in the bulk section of your local organic food store.

–When making something that requires structure and rising time, like bread, a recipe usually calls for bread flour—so use whole wheat bread flour. When making something that is more tender and flaky, and doesn’t require structure, like biscuits or scones, use whole wheat pastry flour.

–To vary the flavor in baking (especially in the case of bread), other kinds of flour, like rye or buckwheat flour, can be substituted for part of the whole wheat. Remember, however, that these flours have too little gluten to create structure, so only use about 1 part of these flours in bread compared to 4 parts whole wheat, otherwise it won’t rise much. While whole wheat bread will never be as light and fluffy as white bread, it will be far more satisfying; you’ll come to prefer it because of how good it makes you feel and because of its hearty flavor.

–Whole wheat flour requires a little more moisture than white flour. Be prepared to add more liquid about a tablespoon at a time to achieve the proper consistency.

–If baking bread with added yeast, increase the yeast from the usual 2 1/4 teaspoons to a whole tablespoon for whole wheat bread.

–For making baked goods that require very low gluten, like pie crust or cake, substitute whole spelt flour for part of the whole wheat pastry flour. Two parts spelt to three parts whole wheat pastry is a good ratio for pie crust and for cake recipes that call for cake flour (super–refined and bleached white flour). If your cake recipe calls for both all–purpose flour and cake flour, use pastry flour instead of all–purpose flour and spelt instead of cake flour.

–To alleviate the greater heaviness of the whole grain flours in cake and cake–like pastries, use the ribboning method. First, have your butter extremely soft, cut into pieces, and set aside. Put the eggs and sugar into a mixing bowl and really whip them with an electric mixer. The mixture will lighten in color and become fluffy. Beat until it is increased in volume and fluffy (if you stop the mixer and lift out your whisk and move it over the surface of the mixture, it will drip a steady stream that stands out on the surface briefly—a “ribbon”). The sugar is working like tiny whisks that introduce extra air into the batter, increasing overall lift. At this point, add the butter a tablespoon at a time, beating for about 10 seconds after each addition. Essentially, instead of beating butter and sugar together and adding eggs, you’re beating eggs and sugar together and then adding butter. You can proceed with your cake recipe from there.

Regarding sugar in sweet baked goods, it’s still a necessity, but you can use brown sugar instead of white for a little more nutrition. Don’t mess with the amount of sugar in cake recipes, but for cookies you can usually reduce the sugar up to half without really noticing much difference. Once you start eating a healthier diet and cut out the harsh processed flavors, you’ll have less craving for extra sugar anyway. Whatever you do, don’t turn to artificial sweeteners.

Squashing Nutrient Deficiencies

The star of the fall vegetable harvest, in all its many colorful varieties, is the winter squash. Its name probably comes from its hardy ability to survive a long winter storage without spoiling. Winter squash has just the right kind of energy and the right nutritional profile to help you acquire the hardiness needed in winter. It is one of the best foods you could eat at this time of year.

Many people are familiar with only one kind of winter squash: the pumpkin. And some are more accustomed to decorating with pumpkins than eating them. But squash can be so delicious, and make you feel so good, that once you add it to your diet, you won’t want to let your squashes sit around for long. Pumpkin pie is just the tip of the iceberg.

The most common varieties of squash besides the pumpkin are the acorn squash, butternut squash, buttercup squash, delicata squash, hubbard squash, kabocha squash, red kuri squash, and spaghetti squash. There are sub–varieties of these varieties (like the Cinderella pumpkin) but we won’t get into those. For now, there’s plenty to choose from!

As you could probably have guessed, squash is nutritious. Squash is high in vitamin A (which gives the interior flesh its bright orange color), vitamin C, potassium, and folic acid (B9). It also contains moderate amounts of other B vitamins and of essential minerals such as manganese and copper. Like all vegetables, it has plenty of fiber. Its healing properties include improving the health of the spleen and pancreas and reducing inflammation and associated pain. And finally, squash is high in calories. Not so high that you can eat more than you really need, but high enough that you’ll get that extra bit of heat energy you need during the winter, which you wouldn’t get from spring and summer vegetables. As with whole grains, potatoes, and other starchy whole foods, the calories in squash come from complex carbohydrates that are metabolized gradually so that you get a steady flow of energy in addition to the nutrients that you need.

Squash is a mildly sweet, calming and pleasant food that creates a cozy atmosphere in the kitchen. It combines well with fat (including butter, olive oil, sesame oil, and bacon fat), which increases vitamin A absorption and balances the carbohydrates. Add a little salt or tamari soy sauce to squash and you’ll bring out the sweet flavor even more. Squash is good with pumpkin pie spices (obviously) such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, all of which set off the mild nature of squash and provide additional heat energy. Squash is also an inspiration for many great desserts, in which you can use natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, raw honey, and agave nectar.

Add more squash to your diet this fall and winter and I guarantee you’ll have better energy and experience visible improvements in your health. And when your body develops those squash cravings, you may have to find a new ornament to grace your front step!

Are You Malnourished?

We live in a country where almost everyone can afford all the food they need. In fact, food here is so plentiful and cheap that we are more likely to eat too many calories than too few. In this day and age, famine is the least of our concerns. And yet, even with all that wealth at our disposal, we’re not rich in health. Many people, even though they get their calories, still don’t get enough nutrients. They become malnourished and subsequently develop health problems. What could explain this strange irony in our modern society? How is it that we, with all the food we need at our disposal, can still get sick from nutrient deficiency?

The problem is that the most ubiquitous, most heavily advertised, most addictive, and least expensive foods available to us are processed foods containing mostly white flour, sugar, and artificial or rancid fats. These foods are high in calories and low in nutrition. Don’t think that calories are a bad thing. We can’t live without calories, and lots of them. But we can’t live just on calories either.

The only reason we can get so many calories and so little nutrition from processed foods is because they’ve been processed. Natural, whole foods contain the right balance of calories and nutrition. In the old days, as long as you got enough food, you were certain to get all the nutrients you needed. But food processors have gotten so adept at separating the nutrients from the calories, and at packaging and selling them separately, that even if we get both junk food and vitamin supplements, we benefit from neither.

When we eat processed foods that are low in nutrients, instead of eating nutritious foods, two things happen. The first is that we stop adding nutrition to our body’s supply, giving it less to work with. Another is that we force it to use up what little it already has in the process of digesting, assimilating, and eliminating the processed and toxic foods. Foods and ingredients that result in a net nutrient loss include white flour, white sugar, corn syrup, soft drinks, caffeine, trans fat, pasteurized milk, artificial sweeteners and any other artificial and synthetic substances. Eating mostly these foods is a form of self–starvation; it makes us malnourished.

Being malnourished isn’t bad merely in an abstract, theoretical sense. It causes a variety of very real health problems. In fact, the way we discovered nutrients in the first place was by cutting them out of our diet and getting sick as a result.

Fortunately, it’s easy to address nutrient deficiencies. Simply add into your diet the foods that contain the missing nutrients! This is how, in the 19th century, ship captains such as James Cook addressed outbreaks of scurvy (which comes from vitamin C deficiency) on long voyages. Cook took barrels of high–C sauerkraut with him, added it to the sailors’ diet, and didn’t lose a single man to scurvy.

Scurvy is fairly rare in our time, but there are many other common health problems that can come from nutrient deficiency. Review the “symptoms of deficiency” for the vitamins and minerals listed below to see if any of them apply to you, and try adding the recommend foods to take care of your symptoms. Some foods, like leafy green vegetables and sea vegetables, help with almost every deficiency because they are so high in so many different vitamins and minerals. Use them to take out multiple deficiencies at once! If you have any questions about how to add any of these recommended foods to your diet, send me an email.

Symptoms of Deficiency in Major Nutrients

Calcium: Osteoporosis (bone loss), fragile/brittle bones and nails, frequent dental problems, joint pain, arthritis, irregular heartbeat, and hypertension. See also Magnesium.
Foods to eat: spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, kale, swiss chard, kombu (a sea vegetable), celery, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, almonds, yogurt, raw milk, raw cheese, blackstrap molasses.

Iron: Anemia, fatigue, pale skin, weakness, brittle nails, pica (appetite for non–foods), constipation, depression.
Foods to eat: green leafy vegetables (mustard greens, collard greens, kale, cabbage, broccoli, spinach), medium rare red meat (grass–fed), naturally raised pork, liver (organic), seafood, sea vegetables, beans, nuts, eggs, dried fruit.

Magnesium: skin inflammation, allergies, anxiety, asthma, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, heart disease, and calcium deficiency symptoms (magnesium is needed for the absorption of calcium. Without magnesium, calcium forms deposits in soft tissue, including heart valves, increasing the likelihood of heart disease). Foods to eat:green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, other nuts and seeds, whole grains, beans and tofu, seafood, sea vegetables.

Potassium: fatigue, or chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgia (muscle cramps and pain), constipation, high blood pressure/hypertension. Foods to eat: green leafy vegetables, potatoes (with skins), sweet potatoes, winter squash, tomatoes, beans, bananas, and almost all fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin A: poor vision, dry eyes, eye inflammation, dry mouth, dry/wrinkled skin, allergies, dandruff, weak immune system, cancer. Foods to eat: organic grass–fed butter, raw milk, organic liver, cod liver oil, eggs, carrots, pumpkin seeds, sweet potatoes, leafy green vegetables, winter squash, peaches, cantaloupe.

Vitamin B complex (B1: Thiamin, B2: Riboflavin, B3: Niacin, B6, B9: Folic Acid, B12): Lethargy, fatigue, severe weight loss, hypoglycemia, beriberi (B1); chapped, cracked lips, mouth/tongue inflammation, sensitivity to sunlight, bloodshot/itchy/watery eyes (B2); pellagra, weakness, sensitivity to cold, lack of appetite, skin infections, high cholesterol, alzheimer’s (B3); anemia, depression, high blood pressure (B6); anemia, birth defects, depression, anxiety, fatigue, heart disease (B9); pernicious anemia, fatigue, diarrhea, muscle spasms (B12) Foods to eat: Whole grains, liver, eggs, asparagus, cauliflower, potatoes with skin (B1); raw milk, raw cheese, leafy green vegetables, organ meats, beans, almonds (B2); whole wheat and other whole grains, beans and peanuts, mushrooms, sesame seeds, fish, meat (B3); whole grains, seafood, meat, leafy green vegetables (B6); leafy green vegetables, beans, sunflower seeds, whole grains, root vegetables (B9); all animal products, esp. liver, shellfish, raw milk, and eggs(B12).

Vitamin C: scurvy (incl. bleeding gums), weak immune system, asthma, respiratory problems, allergies, frequent colds and infections, slow healing wounds. Foods to eat: Leafy green vegetables, sour fruits (strawberries, lemons, oranges, grapefruit, limes, raspberries, pineapples), melons, kiwis, papaya, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, celery, asparagus.

Vitamin D: Rickets, osteoporosis, other bone disorders, depression, seasonal affective disorder, schizophrenia, periodontal disease, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.Foods to eat: The best source of vitamin D is actually sunlight, by means of which we synthesize the vitamin. If unable to get adequate sunlight, you must rely on animal products from fish (particularly cod liver oil) and from animals that got enough sunlight, including grass–fed, free–range beef, pork, raw milk, chicken and eggs.

Vitamin E: Cancer, leg cramps, wrinkles, parkinson’s disease, alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma, cataracts, heart disease, neurological disorders. Foods to eat: Whole grains, esp. whole wheat, olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds and their oils (such as sunflower, sesame, walnut, almond, and hazelnut) leafy green vegetables, asparagus, cucumbers, seafood, and raw milk.

Food as Medicine

You’ve heard that eating a healthy, balanced diet can help you lose weight, increase your energy, and reduce your risk of disease. But did you know that some foods have such strong healing properties that you can use them as you would medicine? And that these foods don’t have the negative side effects of man–made medications? Relying on medicinal foods to combat health problems such as stomachaches, headaches, chronic pain, fatigue, colds, fevers, sore throats, sinus problems, constipation, diarrhea, and many more, is not only effective against those individual problems, it also makes your body stronger and healthier than it was in the beginning. When you start to feel under the weather, make medicinal foods your first remedies, and you may not even need to resort to medications.

Ten Great Medicinal Foods

1. Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans, which can be dissolved into hot water to make a salty and flavorful broth. Miso broth can be used to flavor a soup or just drunk by itself. It has a warming and grounding effect (due to salt and the long aging process), and contains beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes (the result of fermentation). Miso’s digestion–enhancing properties help relieve stomachaches, inflammatory bowel and intestinal pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Because it is so warming, it is effective against colds and congestion. Its grounding nature can help reduce headaches from ice cream, sugar and alcohol, and it helps to calm down nervous and anxious people.

2. Brown Rice is a whole grain that contains an excellent balance of complex carbohydrates, nutrients, and fiber. It is the perfect food for getting back on track when you haven’t been eating well, whether you’ve been having too much sugar, fried food, meat and dairy or whether you’ve been missing meals and haven’t eaten enough. When you really need to make up for a week’s worth of poor food choices, go with a bowl of brown rice and you will feel so much better afterwards. Even better, eat it fairly regularly and you won’t find yourself in that position!

3. Garlic is, strictly speaking, an herb, but as a widely–used culinary herb I think it’s almost a food. Garlic is a very powerful antibacterial and antifungal agent. If you are starting to come down with any kind of virus or bacteria–related illness, even if it’s just a simple cold, garlic can help immensely. Garlic also breaks up congestion and helps us detoxify. It is most effective when eaten raw. If you do choose to eat it raw, you will undoubtedly experience a burning sensation in the mouth, a tearing up of the eyes, and a general feeling of being on fire. What you’re feeling is the sulfuric compounds in the garlic doing their work. Even though it’s a little unpleasant, it doesn’t last long and is far better than being sick for three or four days. If raw garlic is too much for you, though, simply increase your consumption of cooked garlic.

4. Leafy green vegetables, or Greens, are everyday foods that nevertheless have strong healing powers. Their high fiber and nutrient content make them very effective in healing any digestive problems (such as stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea), and they have been showing to have a very healing effect on the lungs and sinuses. Eat them to help reduce stuffy noses, coughing, sneezing, and mucus discharge. Greens also help reduce the fatigue that is a result of malnutrition. Usually when we get malnourished it’s a result of eating foods like white sugar and white flour that contain no nutrients and use up the nutrients we do have stored in our bodies. So eat greens as a way to recover from these foods.

5. Raw Sauerkraut is simply fermented cabbage that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization kills the beneficial bacteria that make sauerkraut as healthy as it is. These bacteria populate the digestive tract, and help us digest heavier foods such as meat and fat, thus reducing stomachaches, ulcers, heartburn and all digestive health problems. They also eliminate candida and other parasites, bad bacteria and fungi. Raw sauerkraut contains, in addition to bacteria, enzymes that aid the pancreas and reduce or eliminate pancreatitis.

6. Ginger is a root that is commonly eaten in its powdered form, as a spice, but can be purchased fresh and whole. Like many other healing foods, it relieves gastrointestinal pain, reduces or eliminates gas and bloating, and reduces symptoms of motion sickness such as dizziness, nausea and sweating. Like miso, it is very grounding and will help you recover from too much alcohol, sugar, and white flour. Ginger’s anti–inflammatory effects also reduce pain and swelling from arthritis.

7. Raw Vinegar is a remarkably versatile healing food that has been shown to help with low energy, chronic pain (from anywhere in the body—back pain, arthritic pain, eye pain, joint pain, etc), colds, sore throats, infections, type 2 diabetes, and more. The reason for this is because the acids in vinegar are highly effective at promoting liver function. The liver is what controls the detoxifying and cleansing process in our bodies, and many of the symptoms that we feel, especially symptoms of pain, are a result of the struggle to detoxify. Vinegar is sort of like a power food that kicks the liver into gear and encourages rapid detoxification. However, do not rely on it for your health—first and foremost, eat a balanced diet and try not to build up toxicity in the first place. Note that the raw vinegar you purchase should be listed as “unpasteurized,” “organic,” and “unfiltered.” The commonly available distilled white vinegar does not have the same healing properties, due to the way it is processed.

8. Chicken Broth has had a reputation as a healing food since ancient Egypt. Why is it so effective? Broth made from boiling a whole chicken contains nutrients leached from cartilage, tendons and bones, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains glucosamine, which helps reduce arthritis (and is sold as an expensive supplement), and also has gelatin, which facilitates digestion, treats ulcers, improves joint health, and even helps treat infectious diseases. Chicken broth made with herbs and garlic is an especially warming, decongestant food that helps the immune system fight sickness.

9 & 10. Raw Milk and Raw Honey round out my list of medicinal foods. But rather than discuss them here, I’ve devoted an entire article to them—see below.

If you have any questions about how to employ these remedies, or have a specific health concern not mentioned here which you’d like to treat using medicinal foods, feel free to send me an email requesting more information.

September Diet: The Vegetable Harvest

Every time the seasons change I like to remind everyone to change their diet accordingly. We’re healthiest when we eat the foods that are being harvested in the present, and in the area where we live, whenever and wherever that may be. Currently, it’s late summer, soon to be fall, and if we want to maintain our health and ward off illness, we should be eating late–summer fruits and vegetables like, well, almost every one you can think of. Along with August, September is the big harvest month in this part of the world, which means it’s a good time to have a nutrient–rich, vegetable–heavy diet. When the cold part of the year sets in, you’ll be glad you did! Most farmers’ markets should have at least some of the following available: string beans, beets and beet greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, lettuce, leeks, mesculn, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, tomatoes and turnips. Blueberries, cantaloupes, peaches, plums, raspberries and watermelons should still be available, and apples are ready now.

Later in the year some vegetables will still be available, like winter squash and pumpkins, root vegetables such as turnips, beets, and carrots, and hardy leafy greens, but there won’t be the same abundance there is today. Sure, you can go to the supermarket and get any vegetable you want, but it won’t have been grown locally. Instead, it will have been flown hundreds of miles from a warmer part of the world to get to you, it won’t be as fresh, and it will have used up a lot of fossil fuels along the way. In fact, it’s my opinion that the widespread prejudice against vegetables partly stems from the fact that we don’t eat them fresh, local and seasonal; instead, they’re canned, frozen, or shipped halfway across the world. All these processes diminish the flavor and nutrition of vegetables, and they increase the likelihood that we’ll eat them out of season, when our bodies aren’t even expecting them.

Late summer is a short season and a time of transition; the fulcrum that balances summer and winter. It is a brief window where many different foods are harvested at once. In traditional Chinese medicine, this time of year is associated with the Earth element. The digestive system (stomach, spleen, pancreas) and female menstrual cycles are also associated with the Earth element, so this is a good time to bring those systems into balance. The foods associated with Earth, sweet vegetables, dairy products, and natural sweeteners, can make or break proper digestion and menstruation. The refined carbohydrates we consume, such as high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, and white flour, overwork the pancreas and create an over–acidic environment in the digestive tract; diabetes and acid reflux are among the consequences. Pasteurized milk with added hormones is often responsible for the severe cramps and extreme mood swings in menstruating women. At this time of year especially, do your best drink either organic or raw milk and to consume complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, the sweet vegetables being harvested now, and natural sweeteners like raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, barley malt, and molasses. You’ll definitely have a much more peaceful transition to fall!

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.


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 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.