Your Salt or Your Life

Salt makes food taste better. But we also know salt can be really harmful. It’s estimated that half of all heart attacks and two-thirds of strokes are caused by high blood pressure (1). Cutting your salt intake will prolong your life and possibly save you from having to take powerful, expensive drugs every day with possibly undesirable side effects. Everything I’ve read indicates that salt overconsumption is a major killer.

Disease Process

Salt increases the amount of fluid carried in your blood vessels, narrows them, and reduces their ability to carry beneficial substances to the cells (1). Your heart, kidneys, and brain are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon and the results are commonly heart attack, kidney disease, or stroke (2).

Hidden Danger

According to this New York Times article, 75% of the salt we ingest is from processed foods. And salt can be hidden in surprising places (see image below). Pretty much anything that comes in a wrapper is a major offender, as well as anything you consume from a restaurant. The top salty foods are bread, processed meats, cheese, salad dressings, and cakes/cookies/doughnuts (1). These foods are not all considered “salty.”

(Image: New York Times)

Salt Guidelines

According to choosemyplate.gov, we should be consuming fewer than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. According to mayoclinic.com, this is equivalent to a teaspoon of table salt. I took a photo of a teaspoon of salt and, as you can see, it looks like a heck of a lot! There is no way I would put this much salt on my food throughout the day if I controlled the salt usage. At the very least, this amount would be adequate to season my cooking during a day. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a terrific nutrition information outlet whose newsletter I subscribe to (and blogged about), says that average sodium intake is around 4,000 mg per day. Wow! Keep in mind that the body only needs about 180 mg of sodium per day.

20111027-214250.jpg

Conflicting Information

You may have heard about a study that was released earlier in 2011 which reportedly minimized the danger of salt intake (3). The study has received a fair share of criticism from the Centers for Disease Control and the head of Harvard’s School of Public Health based on it’s questionable design (4, 5). Of course, the media jumped on the research report like bees on honey. The fact is that the study was flawed and should not affect your goal of moderate sodium consumption.

Food Politics

Why is there so much salt in processed foods? Because it makes bland, highly refined food more palatable. Salt also helps preserve processed foods – it helps the food be more stable on the shelf, where it needs to sit for days and weeks. Stable food is easier to make, store and sell because it minimizes waste and so it is relatively cheap. Fresh food spoils fairly quickly and is therefore less convenient. It’s also vastly, vastly more healthful. The desire for cheaper, more convenient food to accommodate our increasingly time and cash strapped lives increases the demand for this health-sapping food. The stress we experience further increases our desire for comforting foods, raising the demand further. Profit-driven corporations are more than happy to supply the object of our desire: fast, cheap calories.

Recommendations

  • Cook at home more than you eat out. It’s almost impossible to stay within salt intake limits when you eat out. This is the main recommendation.
  • When you eat out, try to go for whole, unprocessed foods.
  • When you cook at home, be sure to actually cook and not just heat up something that was in a wrapper (e.g., a TV dinner).
  • Know your enemy: the top salty offenders are bread, processed meats, cheese, salad dressings, and cakes/cookies/doughnuts (1)

References

(1) http://cspinet.org/salt/saltreport.pdf
(2) http://www.bpassoc.org.uk/microsites/salt/Home/Whysaltisbad/Saltseffects
(3) http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/05/04/135983232/study-muddies-water-on-health-effects-of-salt
(4) http://singularityhub.com/2011/05/11/new-european-study-not-worth-its-salt/
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/04/health/research/04salt.html

Chanha Masala

I love Indian cuisine. The use of spice, the use of vegetables and legumes, and the absence of overwhelming quantities of meat (if there is any at all) make me feel great when I eat Indian.

So, it’s been one of the cuisines I’ve tried to learn and master, with varying degrees of success.

Below: The primary ingredients – tomatoes, onions, mustard seeds (the yellow round ones), cumin seeds, whole cloves and chanha masala (a spice powder).

20111023-213313.jpg

20111023-213413.jpg

Below: Chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzo beans. I LOVE chickpeas. They are creamy and tender. I feel better when I eat them. Loaded with thamin, B6, fiber, protein, and folate, it is commonly mentioned in lists of “superfoods.”

20111023-213422.jpg

Below: Using the cast iron skillet for extra iron. Cooking acidic foods, such as tomatoes, in cast iron really helps pull the iron out and supplement your iron intake.

20111023-213432.jpg

20111023-213439.jpg

Below: The creamy result of chana masala. Sweetness from the onion, acidity from the tomato, texture from the chickpeas (the chana), and intense flavor from the masala (spices). Serve on warm basmati rice and enjoy good health!

20111023-213451.jpg

Natural Epicurean Open House

Today was an open house for The Natural Epicurean, the culinary school I’ll be attending starting in February. They had a short talk on using the underutilized – yet delicious – parts of plants and Mason Arnold, the founder of Greenling local produce delivery, presented on sustainable and local food sourcing. They also had some Q&A about the school and some of the students made an array of delicious appetizers! On top of it all, I got to speak with several staff of the school, including owner Rich Goldstein.

Everyone talked about what an exciting time it is in the world of food and health, and I’m feeling very positive about the direction I’m heading! I’m really looking forward to starting the program and meeting new people who are enthusiastic about food and living healthfully.

20111022-125037.jpg

20111022-125048.jpg

Above – In the demo/lecture space, which is a new expansion for the school.

20111022-125056.jpg

Above – Me with Maya Farnsworth, Managing Director of The Natural Epicurean.

20111022-125105.jpg

Above – Gluten-free empanada with an amazing Chimichurri sauce and a gluten-free brownie bite.

Above – Greenling Founder Mason Arnold talks about distributing local and sustainable food, with Amy Ramm, founder of Nada Moo, a local (soon to be national) vegan ice cream brand. Amy is a graduate of The Natural Epicurean and an instructor.

The program will last about 9 months, with a large amount of classroom time plus two chunks of required internship and externship hours. Followed by that, I expect a lot of hard work and learning on my path. I learned that most of the students come from outside of Austin just to attend the program, and it sounds like the school is planning some big things to grow its presence in the world of healthful food education. This open house was a great chance to meet more people, learn more about what the school is about, and whet my appetite for more! Mission accomplished!

Fried Eggplant with Tomato Sauce

I picked up some eggplant this morning at the farmer’s market with the intent of doing this dish. It worked pretty well the first time and I liked it again.

20111015-213736.jpg

20111015-213747.jpg

20111015-213754.jpg

Photo Above: You’ve got to salt your eggplant slices and let them sit for a bit so they lose some of their water content.

20111015-213821.jpg

20111015-213836.jpg

Above: These gluten-free breadcrumbs were pretty good. A bit of Tony’s helped a lot, though!

20111015-213843.jpg

20111015-213902.jpg

20111015-213909.jpg

The final plate, complete with a fresh batch of roasted okra, the red sauce (canned tomatoes, fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper), and a spot of Richardson Farms hot Italian sausage. Would have been perfect with a nice wine but we were lacking that. Still, it was enjoyed.

 

Okra, Baby! (And Caramelized Onions)

Whoa! Okra?

Since I had to give up gluten, I’ve craved fried okra from time to time. I also have heard that okra grows in plentiful quantities here in Central Texas. So I picked some up from Johnson’s Backyard Garden at the farmer’s market this morning.

20111015-132201.jpg

I mixed them up with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roasted them at 425* for 15 minutes.

20111015-132426.jpg

20111015-132436.jpg

Above – I gave the sheet pan a quick shake after 10 minutes. The hand is in there so you know I shook it. Very realistic. (smile)

20111015-132557.jpg

20111015-132605.jpg

Okra – Nutrition Information

According to nutritiondata.self.com, okra is a good source of vitamin C. It contains 22% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C in an 80g serving. How much is 80g? It’s about a handful. The photo below measured out to 75g.

20111015-133815.jpg

Caramelized Onions

I was craving caramelized onions, so bang – I made it happen.

20111015-133823.jpg

Above – My intuition was that white onion or yellow onion would be best (I don’t do this very often).

20111015-133830.jpg

Get the onion slices going over medium heat. Be sure to slice them fairly thinly and add salt and pepper. Most of the cooking happens with the cover on, but that makes it hard to take photos.

20111015-133837.jpg

Above – The onions darkening up. The water from the onion is sweating out, the flavors are concentrating, and the sugars in the onion are becoming more prominent.

20111015-133843.jpg

Above – The onions looking so buttery, smooth, sweet and delicious.

20111015-133853.jpg

20111015-133902.jpg

20111015-133909.jpg

Toasted crusty bread (Udi’s gluten free – the Whole Grain variety is my favorite), caramelized onions, and a few bits of basil from Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Bon appetit!

For more than you ever thought you’d want to know about caramelizing onions, check out this post on seriouseats.com.

What is Macrobiotics?

Several months ago, I had an amazing experience at a local macrobiotic restaurant, Casa De Luz, here in Austin. I had wanted to experience the vegan, macrobiotic cuisine, which I’ll admit did not sound all that appetizing from the menu description.

What I experienced was plant-based food that reminded me just how delicious, nourishing, and gratifying a plant-based meal could be. The meal was prepared with amazing care and the flavor and texture variation was beyond what I had expected. Receiving a meal that benefited me nutritionally was a happy secondary benefit. I wanted to learn more about the theory and practice of macrobiotics.

I picked up a copy of Herman Aihara’s “Basic Macrobiotics.” The book is still unfolding it’s knowledge to me – the concepts are very new to me and sometimes seem to disagree with what I believe and understand about biology. But almost everything I have read makes sense in principle and I have no doubt the practice of macrobiotics would lead one to a healthy and happy life.

20111008-105528.jpg

I’ll list a few of the basic dietary practices of macrobiotics, in no particular order:

  • Intact grains are the foundation of a healthy diet (unmilled versions of: rice, millet, oats, barley)
  • Balance of what macrobiotics refers to as “yin” and “yang” foods (I’m still working on this one) as well as balancing acidifying foods with alkalizing foods. Yin/Yang and acid/alkaline are not analogs (e.g., yang does not equal acid). The Standard American Diet of meats, cheeses, eggs, and refined grains is said to be very Yang and acidifying. Sugar is said to be acid forming, but also Yin. How you balance food is also ideally varied slightly depending on your climate and the time of year. This is all still sinking in…
  • General avoidance of animal foods
  • Avoidance of processed foods
  • Consumption of local, seasonal, organic foods
  • Consumption of sea vegetables (e.g., hijiki, kombu, wakame)
  • Consumption of miso, a fermented soy product, and other soy products for their health protective qualities

Macrobiotics is not merely a diet regimen, however. In fact, the term “macrobiotics” was derived from Greek to mean the “big view of life.” The term was first used in 1796. Among the goals of macrobiotics Aihara enumerates are:

  • Making the macrobiotic practitioner spiritually rich
  • Simplifying life
  • Freedom from the fear of illness

Finally, I’ll share a passage from Aihara’s book which I found particularly inspiring:

In macrobiotics, ideally one lives the way one wants and earns money doing what one enjoys. Not only can one save money but, at the same time, can be loved by many people and remembered even after death. Because one is happy, she or he can inspire others. Establishing such a life is a goal of macrobiotics.

Richardson Farms Visit

After reading Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about junk food from September 25, I investigated the local chapter of the Slow Food movement – Austin Slow Food. I found out they were going to visit Richardson Farms near Rockdale, TX, the following weekend. $20 covered the tour and a portion of locally-raised meats, so I was in.

Richardson Farms is a 200 acre farm that raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks…for human consumption. I went to see where meat comes from. I wanted to look in the faces of the animals that many of us eat. I wanted to see where they lived and, yes, where they die.

If I choose to eat meat, I want it to be with this complete knowledge.

Granted, Richardson Farms raises it’s animals under conditions that I would consider more humane than your average industrial ag operation. Does that make a difference? An animal farm that is more humane is still a production facility of life destined to be killed for our food – MY food (I am what many call a “flexitarian”).

I don’t have any moral judgements or philosophical certitudes to pass on, but what I can show are the images I captured.

20111002-182704.jpg

At around 90 degrees or so, it was warm, but it was a lot better than 105, which has been the high temperature range most of the summer.

20111002-182713.jpg

Jim Richardson (khaki shorts and baseball cap), the man who runs the farm, speaking to the Slow Food Austin group. Mr. Richardson is a veterinarian who says he loves his new career. The man knows his stuff when it comes to raising animals in a healthful, ecologically thoughtful manner.

20111002-182748.jpg

Above – Turkeys for Thanksgiving. It’s hard to read the mind of a turkey, but I can tell you it sure looks like there isn’t much going on in those brains. They gawk and honk, mouths open, most of them with their heads turned in your direction. Like photocopies of a turkey, photoshopped onto the dirt landscape in front of you.

20111002-182755.jpg

Above – Chickens. I saw one chicken sitting in the corner, seemingly unable to stand (I saw it make an attempt). I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but it did seem either hurt or sick. One pig kept tilting its head to one side, which they said was due to an ear infection and which they treated the pig for with antibiotics (they said the pig would not be sold for this reason). We did discuss how some animals die on the farm prior to slaughter. It seems that just like people, animals get injured or sick and some don’t make it. Still, I felt a pang of guilt for my small contribution to the confinement and eventual slaughter of animals who sometimes suffer various disabilities or injuries with/without notice from those who could correct the problem (lest we forget, many humans in our world also suffer disability and injury without notice). Is it my fault these animals are hurt? Does their pent-up animal prison condition increase the odds of injury? Am I the cause of pain for the occasional bite of chicken I enjoy?

Many of the chickens were missing feathers in patches, often on their backsides. According to Mrs. Richardson, this is because they peck at each other. You put a mob of birds in fairly close quarters and things are going to happen. I didn’t see any injuries or bleeding sores, but these weren’t the robust birds, fully feathered and ready for a magazine cover photo shoot, that I had in my mind. Still, I’m not sure that was a realistic image in the first place, and overall they looked healthy to me.

20111002-182806.jpg

Above – A young turkey. I guess it’s fair to say that most of the birds had some part of them which was red and featherless where you’d expect feathers.

20111002-205847.jpg

Above – It’s tempting to anthropomorphize animals (imagine they are more human than they really are), such as this pig, which seems to be smiling. Still, the pigs had shade, and mud to roll in. On the other hand, it would someday have it’s life prematurely ended for human gastronomical enjoyment (certainly not for the nutritional benefits).

20111002-210047.jpg

Above – A shot from the “killing room.” Chickens’ heads go into the tubes and out the bottom. This is where their throats are cut. The silver box on the left is filled with scalding water to aid in feather removal. I considered not mentioning this part, but that’s part of the problem with today’s food culture in America – we don’t think about how the meal comes to our plate. I figure it’s better to know and decide on a particular food than to make a thoughtless decision. When we think of meat as easy to get, I think we’ll be more likely to mindlessly indulge in more of it than if we were fully away of the effort and grim realities that go into it’s delivery to our dinner table. Many understandably choose to not eat meat because they find these images repugnant and unnatural, and I understand completely.

20111002-210109.jpg

Above – This machine spins and removes the feathers of birds dipped inside (they’re dead by this point).

20111002-210205.jpg

Above – A pig wallow. Let me tell you, after a couple of hours in the dusty Central Texas heat, it looked inviting.

20111002-210224.jpg

Above – Sorghum leaves.

My convenient, middle class, and Western lifestyle has meant I have the luxury of thinking animal farming and slaughter is a bit brutish. It’s not necessarily so for all the world’s people, who may raise or hunt animals for necessary food without a twinge of moral confusion. For we Americanos not wanting to bloody our Banana Republic slacks, Richardson Farms falls somewhere on the sunshine-y side of the continuum of livestock operations which starts at bucolic, idyllic pastures where you’d almost imagine the animals are happy to be your meal and goes to behemoth, frightening flesh mills. The Richardsons seem to be genuine people who care about the animals, the ecosystem, and their customers.

But do the animals notice the difference? Do our bodies notice the difference when we consume animals from “nicer” farms as opposed to grimier operations? Do our spirits notice a difference? What about the spirits of the people slaughtering animals repeatedly? (I once read that violent crime is higher in areas with more slaughterhouses.)

Does anyone deserve judgment for enjoying a meal of their choosing? Aren’t they doing just what they’ve learned? Is the morality of animal consumption relative – or absolute?

My research into correct diets leads me to believe that minimizing our consumption of animals is in our best interest. Beyond that, it’s up to each person to decide if, and how much, they should consume them. In any case, it behooves us to know from where our food comes and make choices which align with our personal values.

What do YOU think?

Falafel with Chard

I picked up some wheat-free falafel balls at the farmer’s market yesterday. I love The Mediterranean Chef! Their hummus is my favorite in Austin.

I chopped off the stems of my rainbow chard, sautéed them in olive oil with some onion and a split “breakfast radish”. I added the chard leaves after a couple of minutes.

Not knowing what to do next, I had the idea to make tacos from the falafel, the chard, and tortillas from El Milagro. The tortillas needed a quick steam to soften up.

20111002-084223.jpg

20111002-084217.jpg

20111002-084208.jpg20111002-084230.jpg20111002-084237.jpg

Inspirational Quote and Reflection

Seek, therefore, not to find out who you are,

Seek to determine who you want to be

– Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God

I like this quote because it says two things

  1. It’s important to actively seek out “you”
  2. YOU get to determine what you become. There is no such thing as a pre-defined “you”. YOU define that. And it can change over time.

 

20111001-231023.jpg

Another thing Walsch says is that we make decisions based on either love or fear. This really struck me because I have been struggling a bit with my decision to pursue a career in food and health. I’m struggling at times because

  1. The career path is unclear.
  2. The career path – whatever it becomes – will be nearly 100% new to me.
  3. The career path likely leads to changes in my life (schedule, income level/stability, etc.).
  4. Leaving my current job means I leave my employer in a difficult place with a major, long-range project.

 

Those are the fear-based concerns that push me away from career change. The voices in my head (and anticipated voices from people who either mean well or who mean to judge me for the decision) can be discouraging. But I am soldiering on because of these love-based reasons

  1. I want to have my career align with my personal values and personality
  2. I want to pursue a career of my own making, not continue to do what’s convenient because I’ve always done it

 

All that being said, I think it’s time for me to take the final step and notify my employer of my decision to leave. I’ll be giving 4.5 months notice, which is fair given the circumstances, I think.

Tighten your seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

20111001-231030.jpg