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!

Thanksgiving Weight Loss Tips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Autumn Approaches

It doesn’t feel like it yet – it’s still warm, humid and cloudy here in Virginia – but fall is coming and before my next issue comes out, the weather will have probably turned just cold enough for some people to start getting sick. It’s worth it now to talk a little about why that happens. It will also give us a chance to talk about a very important element of staying healthy: being able to change. Being able to change with the seasons, and with other natural changes that occur in life, is one of the keys to keeping yourself properly nourished. One reason why so many diets fail is because they are rigid. You may need to eat differently if you move, get a new job, enter into a relationship, exercise more, get sick, etc. Many people change their diet and lifestyle if they themselves want to change ( i.e. lose weight or build muscle), but not many do so because of changes forced on them. It’s not as urgent in this world of air conditioning and oil heating, but having the power to adapt is still very important.

Autumn is getting close to the hibernation time, and although we’re not ready to curl up yet, it’s a period where harvesting occurs and projects should be getting near the wrapping-up stage. At the same time it’s a new beginning for things that weren’t feasible in the summer months. It’s a good period for transition towards more “interior” activity like studying, contemplation, and spending time with your friends and family. Daily exercise is also a very good idea for keeping your body warm and your blood flowing. Sometimes the shorter days sneak up on us and catch us still living a summer lifestyle, i.e. leaving the windows open or walking around in shorts. I’d say, don’t try to endure it: it’s only going to get colder. Make some tea and put a sweater on. And, especially, protect your neck. This is the season when the lungs and the large intestine are the organs most susceptible to both healing and to illness. Many people get mucus-y colds and coughs around this time for two reasons: coldness is penetrating the poorly protected body and weakening its immune function, leaving it susceptible to viruses; the large intestine, in its sensitive state, allows more waste to re-enter the system and weaken the body. The latter is more likely in those who are constipated and/or have a “congesting” diet high in fat, dairy products, fried foods, and refined grains – all of which lack fiber and are very hard for the body to eliminate. Eat plenty of root vegetables (there’s a recipe at the bottom), drink hot tea as opposed to anything with milk or sugar, and if you do get sick, try that magical vampire-repellant: garlic. It wasn’t worn around superstitious peoples’ necks for nothing. Garlic is extremely warming and lethal to bacteria. Its beneficial properties come from the essential oil contained within it, which can be extracted and then rubbed on congested chests or the bottom of your feet to help prevent or reduce colds.

To extract garlic oil: peel and chop enough cloves to fill half of a quart jar. Cover with cold-pressed olive oil to about one or two inches above the garlic and place in a sunlit window for five to seven days, shaking once daily. Then strain it well through a cheese cloth, and you have strong smelling garlic oil. The garlic that was soaking can be refrigerated and used in cooking, and the garlic oil will last months and can be used both internally and externally. (This “recipe” comes from Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons).

Some general recommendations: Eat warming foods, cut down on damp, fried dairy foods, play sports, read books, think about things, finish up old projects, start new projects, watch classic movies, eat raw garlic, and drink tea. Keep your feet and neck warm, and try to get more sleep. And spend some time looking at the leaves changing color! More than anything else, it may help you get in touch with the natural cycle of the year.