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May 16, 2011

As you may have noticed, there hasn’t been a new post in a while. The reason for this is simple: I’ve been busy. Okay, we all have. What I mean by that is that I’ve been trying to get my other website, jeffreyraich.com, going. That is the website for my therapy practice and it’s been more work then I had originally anticipated. So, I do thank you for you patience and hope that you will stick around for a little while longer. In the meantime go and grab a handful of your favorite trail mix, sit back, and enjoy the commercials – their almost over.

Sleep and how to get it

April 22, 2011

Recently there was an excellent article in the NY Times about sleep and its impact on our lives. Most of us often turn to sleep as the thing we can eliminate when we are busy. The children are crying, the dogs just relieved themselves in the kitchen, emails have to be answered, and tv shows need to be watched. And the only way to make room for all these things is to give up some sleep. We commonly tell ourselves that we will make up the time on the weekend, or tomorrow, or perhaps you have convinced yourself that you exist just fine with less sleep and actually thrive on it.

It turns out that this is simply not true and now there is research to prove it.

According to research, getting just six hours of sleep a night, as compared to an ideal eight, can lead to the same effect on our brains as being intoxicated. The study, done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, found that after six days, 25 percent of those who slept for six hours were falling asleep at the computer during the day during testing. Further, by the end of the study, two weeks later, those who were part of the six hours of sleep a night group had the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk (the same result for those who were sleep deprived for 25 hours straight).

The question that comes to my mind is would you go to work legally drunk? Of course not. Yet everyday about two-thirds, by some estimates, of us are sleep deprived. We still drive, work, and live our lives and, at times, may try to convince ourselves that our lack of sleep is a good thing because it allows us to be more productive. I know I have heard many clients voice these very sentiments.

And while some of us are choosing to stay awake, there are others who would love to sleep but can’t. While this was not a subject of the article in the Times, it is a significant issue. In my office, the inability to sleep is actually one of the biggest problems that clients struggle with. The struggle is actually so intense that at least half of the clients I see are on some sort of sleep medication.

But sleep, or lack of sleep, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When one goes without sleep for long enough, it is not just that person’s performance that suffers, but also that person’s mental health. There is a direct link between depression and sleep. Often times when a person feels down, hopeless, or full of anxiety, it is because they aren’t getting enough sleep.

So what can you do? Here are a list of the top 10 things you can do to get the best night of sleep:

  1. The first thing you can do is rethink the importance of sleep. The notion that sleep is unimportant or can be skipped on occasion is not helpful or accurate. Your body, brain, and mind need it. As shown above, most people are lacking in sleep and over time their cognitive ability is impaired. If this is the case, you will actually be working harder and not smarter. And not only will your brain be working harder, it will be less effective.
  2. What’s stress got to do with it? One of the reasons that people don’t sleep is a result of too much cortisol in their bodies. Cortisol, or the stress hormone, is responsible for the flight or fight response we have when we’re stressed or scared. And if we stop and think about it, fight or flight doesn’t lead to the desire to sleep. I mean, the last thing you would want to do is stop for a quick rest while being chased by a tiger. One way to rid your body of cortisol is to breath. By breathing out for twice as long as you breath in you will be sending messages to your brain that things are okay and that the tiger that was chasing you is now gone.
  3. Be regular. Most of us strive for regularity in other parts of our lives – job, mail, bathroom. And this is no different. Our bodies get used to rhythm and rely on it to know what to do. One way of helping sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. While this might be hard to do for any number of reasons, the more regular your schedule, the more likely you are to go to sleep easily and stay asleep through the entire night.
  4. Get up and shake your tail feathers. There are two benefits, at least in terms of sleep, that moving and exercise have on the brain: cortisol depletion and serotonin building. Another way to release stress, or cortisol, is to move. Your body will “burn” off the excess and you will feel more relaxed. Exercise also builds serotonin levels, which is a sleep regulator, in addition to all the other wonderful benefits it has. Exercising vigorously for 30 minutes or more a day is ideal for promoting sleep. Make sure not to exercise too close to bed time, however. If you must exercise in the evening, opt for slow, non-vigorous exercise that doesn’t cause you to break a sweat. Things like stretching, yoga, or a walk around the block.
  5. Fizzy drinks. Caffeine is a the enemy of sleep. Most of us don’t really give it much thought. In fact, many people say to me that they don’t really drink things with caffeine. However, when we start to go through the list, we find that in fact they are getting far more then they thought. Caffeine is found in a variety of things, from sodas to coffee to tea to chocolate. And the reality is that it stays in your body for 7 hours. And while you may not be aware that it is in your body 7 hours later, you may be suffering its effects when you can’t sleep. What you can do is make sure you don’t have any caffeine 7 hours prior to sleeping. A good guide is not to have any after 3 p.m.
  6. Rays of light. Our bodies are meant to respond to light. We build vitamin D through sunlight, feel alive and happy as a result, and loose melatonin by exposure. Our brains also know when it’s light out that we’re supposed to be awake and chasing after our kids. But the converse is also true. When it’s dark out, our brains know that we’re supposed to be sleeping. And here’s the problem: the more light we have in our rooms at night, the more our brains think it’s time to not be sleeping. Light doesn’t just have to be from the sun, however. It can also come from your ipad, cell phone, t.v., or any other electronic device. The rule is that if you’re having trouble sleeping, turn off the devices and focus on sleep instead of the latest episode of The Office. If you want a relaxing pre-bed activity read a book with a low wattage bedside lamp or book light. Or better yet, try some meditation or deep breathing exercises.
  7. Just eat it. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat close to bed time. We’ve all heard that eating at bed will cause us to gain weight. We could discuss whether this is true or not, but the reality is that carbs create serotonin and since serotonin is a sleep regulator, building more helps. But what you eat and how much is very important. When choosing a bedtime snack, try a whole grain carbohydrate based snack such as 100% whole wheat bread or home made millet crackers (recipe below).
  8. Deja Vu. Our bodies respond to routine. Routine gives our brains signals that certain events are going to happen. Things like the sun shining is a signal it’s time to wake up, water boiling is time to make tea, and brushing your teeth means it’s time to go to sleep. The same way that light is a signal, so are any number of other events. The key is to be consistent and do the same things every night. If you normally brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, and get into bed, then this should be the thing you do every night. While it may not be possible to do this all the time, the more the better.
  9. Music to your ears. Music is a powerful tool. It makes us remember things, want to move, and can help set the mood to sleep. There are a number of different cds that can be utilized for relaxation, but the rule is make is light, make it soft, and make it soothing.
  10. Write it down. In the end, you may find that nothing works. You’ve tried all or most of these things and you still can’t sleep. If this is the case, the most important thing you can do for yourself is start a journal. Write down how you feel, what you ate, what you did, what the weather was like, or whether you were hot or cold. The more information you have, the more you may be able to start to see a pattern. Before you know it, you may learn that your room is just too hot or the dogs are tossing and turning at the foot of the bed. Once you know more about what is keeping you awake the quicker you can make changes to get you to sleep.

Millet Crackers

Adapted from Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron

These are a great snack, a breeze to make, and are usually devoured in hours. Be creative and add whatever you like: seeds, ground nuts, or spices.

2 1/2 tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 tsp honey

4 tbsp water

1/2 cup raw millet, ground to a powder in blender

3/4 cup super flour *

Mix the above. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until you have a good dough consistency. Knead for a few minutes and roll until 1/8 inch thick on a buttered baking sheet or one lined with silpat. Score with a knife in any shape you wish. Bake about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on rack.

* Super flour is a term Ruth Yaron uses in the book. She describes it as more nutritious. To make super flour, place 1 tbsp each soy flour, wheat germ, and brewer’s yeast in a a one-cup measuring cup. Top it with whole wheat flour. If you don’t like any of the ingredients, like soy for instance, you can always add more of another.

Nutrition, Mindfulness, and Movement

April 15, 2011

When I started writing this blog the idea was to talk about, learn about, and explore how nutrition affects mental health. And as a therapist who is currently going through school for nutrition, this seemed like an obvious interest. However, the more I read and write about the matter, the more I realize this is not enough. There is no doubt that nutrition contributes, and maybe causes, an increase in mood, energy, and vitality. After all, we literally are not only what we eat, but also we feel what we eat.

This is all fine and good, even wonderful, but it really does leave some space for wiggle room. I mean, say you eat nothing but food from the perimeter of the supermarket – veggies, fruit, meat, and non-processed food – you know, the Michael Pollen diet. Does this mean that you will never have another issue with depression, anxiety, or some other mental health issue? Hardly. This does mean, however, that you will probably have fewer or less severe difficulties – less emotional volatility. But nutrition is only one of a brilliant trifecta that can erase the suffering and pain of an otherwise anxiety or depression filled life.

While nutrition gives you the tools to directly control your brain chemistry, and thereby control your seratonin, norepinephrin, and epinephrin, the rest of the trifecta give you the skills and tools, as well as ability. What this means is that nutrition will leave you less likely to feel out of control as a result of ‘normal’ emotional ups and downs (and be sure that everyone experiences these ups and downs), while the other two pieces of the circle give you the direct tools and skills to confront the anxiety and depression and keep you more centered, and the ability to keep your brain functioning at its best, in the most healthy way possible.

And what are the other two parts? They are mindfulness and movement.

So, with that in mind, this blog will, every now and again, include these subjects. And in the following few days, I will post a bit more about each to explain what I mean by them and also how and why they help.

Fiber, Lentils, and Mental Health

March 22, 2011

Today, more then ever, we are assaulted with difficult decisions about what to eat. We are in more of a hurry then ever and feel more stressed as a result. Time is not on our side, as Rod Steward may have you believe. But the result of this has not been something to sing about. Because we are under more stress, anxiety and depression rates have gone up. And when I say gone up, what I mean is sky-rocketed. As it turns out, anxiety now affects about 18% of the adult population, is the number one mental health issue in the U.S., and costs the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill. Further, the number of people suffering from depression is doubling every 20 years and the rates in children are increasing by 23% every year, according to a Harvard Medical School study. Also keep in mind that this is simply for anxiety and depression. I am not even including other diagnosis like bipolar, ADHD, and schizophrenia.

But why is this? Why has there been such an increase in mental health issues? There could be arguments for any number of reasons such as: more toxins in the environment, less community, more need to be away from family, and of course a total change in what, how, and when we eat. It is the last one that I believe to be amongst the most damaging to our collective mental health. If we stop to think about what we now eat compared to what our grandparents most likely ate, we can see that we are now consuming sugar with a side of processed ingredients. Here’s what I mean: Americans are now ingesting, on average, 2-3 pounds of sugar a week. Over the last 20 years, Americans have gone from eating 26 pounds to 135 pounds of sugar per person, per year. Even more astounding is that prior to the turn of this century, the average consumption was only five pounds per person, per year. As simple as the math is, it is still amazing that in a little over 100 years, we now consume 130 more pounds of sugar a year, on average.

This increase in sugar consumption has increased the rates of almost all illnesses: diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity . . . the list goes on. It has also increased the rates of mental illness. And since this blog is dedicated to mental health and food, I will stick with that.

This is where fiber comes in. In order for us to consume that much more sugar, we have had to increase not only how much we eat and how often we eat, but also what we eat. And what we eat now comes with very little fiber. This is the only way that it could be possible to consume this quantity of sugar, mostly because fiber makes us feel full.

Think about it. The number one place sugar is added is in soft drinks. There is no fiber in soft drinks. How about cookies or cake? Nope, generally no fiber. In fact, no matter where you look, processed foods, those where the most sugar has been added, contain virtually no fiber. Fast food is fast for a very simple reason: It has almost no fiber. This is a requirement for us to be able to cook food fast.

So, here’s the link and reason I’m going on about sugar and fiber. It is the increase in sugar combined with the lack of fiber in our diets that has caused such calamitous outcomes. This is because fiber acts like a sponge and soaks up sugar in our bodies. I know this is not too technical, but you get the idea.

The bottom line is that not only does fiber soak up sugar, but it also regulates the release of sugar into bodies. This is a great thing because the slower sugar is released into our bodies, the less hard our pancreas has to work to release enough insulin to deal with the sugar (no insulin resistance as a result). It also means that less sugar gets into our blood stream (no sugar spikes and crashes). Both of these things mean more stability in our body and mind and less feelings of hunger through the day (amongst other things, it’s the drop in blood glucose that causes hunger).

Fiber is good.

And the best places to get fiber are in fruits, vegetables, and beans. Which finally brings me to lentils. Our ancestors used to get between 100 -300 grams of fiber a day. We now get, on average, 12 – 15. However, this is not enough. According to many nutrition experts, not the least of whom work for places like Yale and Harvard, we need far more then this. In fact, these experts advise that we consume at least 40, if not 60, grams a day. The quickest way to bump up our current intake is to eat lentils.

Lentils have been around for over 8,000 years. They originally come from central Asia and are now a staple food in India, occurring in such foods as Dal. One cup of lentils contains 15.64 grams of fiber (63% of our daily value according to the USDA, but this is thought to be too low). This is simply amazing. With just one cup of lentils (brown, green, red, or any color) you get more fiber than the average American. And as I showed above, more fiber equals mental health stability.

So here’s what you can do to help your depression, anxiety, or any mental health issue really:

  1. eat less processed food as it will certainly contain added sugar
  2. eat more fiber in the forms of fruits, vegetables, and beans
  3. exercise more as this helps the body use and better regulate sugar and insulin
  4. get more sleep as this helps the body regenerate
  5. take time to relax and meditate at least 15 minutes a day

And here’s a way to get more lentils in your diet.

Lentil and escarole soup

Adapted from The complete vegetarian handbook by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley

This is an amazingly simple soup to cook. It’s packed with fiber from lentils, has leafy greens, and tastes great.

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium organic onion, chopped

2 stalks organic celery, chopped

1 large organic carrot, chopped (never peel the carrot as this is where much of the nutrients are)

2-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 can (14 ounces) tomatoes, drained and chopped or already diced

8 ounces red, brown, or green lentils (1 1/4 cups)

4-6 cups water or stock (depending on how ‘soupy’ you like it)

salt and pepper to taste

1 head of organic escarole (about 1 pound)

1/2 cup grated organic Parmesan cheese

1. Heat oil over medium heat.*

2. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Cook and stir often until vegetables are soft.

3. Add tomatoes, reduce heat to low, and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

4. Add lentils and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, about 30 – 45 minutes.

5. Season with salt and pepper. Also, think creatively about spices. You can add others such as dill, thyme, oregano, or basil.

6. Meanwhile, separate the escarole leaves and rinse. Stack the leaves and cut them crosswise into 1/2 inch wide strips. When the lentils are tender, stir in the escarole.

7.Return the soup to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the escarole is tender, about 10 minutes.

To serve, ladle into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

*never heat olive oil, or any oil, to smoking. The result is that the oil becomes toxic and not just in the cooking, but also in the vapors.

Pop-Tarts

March 12, 2011

What is this? In a presentation given by Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center at Yale University, he asked this question. Can you tell what this is?

ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, SOYBEAN AND PALM OIL (WITH TBHQ FOR FRESHNESS), DEXTROSE, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, CRACKER MEAL, CORN SYRUP, WHEY, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF SEMI SWEET CHOCOLATE CHIPS (SUGAR, CHOCOLATE, COCOA BUTTER, DEXTROSE, SOY LECITHIN), MILK CHOCOLATE (SUGAR, CHOCOLATE, COCOA BUTTER, MILK), COCOA (PROCESSED WITH ALKALI), MOLASSES, SALT, WHEAT STARCH, CALCIUM CARBONATE, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA, SODIUM ALUMINUM PHOSPHATE), NONFAT MILK, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, CARAMEL COLOR, VANILLA EXTRACT, EGG WHITES, SOY LECITHIN, GELATIN, MONO-AND DIGLYCERIDES, XANTHAN GUM, SODIUM STEAROYL LACTYLATE, DATEM, YELLOW #5 LAKE, RED #40 LAKE, BLUE #2 LAKE, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, YELLOW #6 LAKE, NIACINAMIDE, REDUCED IRON, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B6), RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), THIAMIN HYDROCHLORIDE (VITAMIN B1), FOLIC ACID.

This is the ingredient list from a chocolate chip Pop-Tart. As Dr. Brownell points out, this could be any of thousands of products. He points out that the most amazing part of this list is that it contains 56 ingredients, yet it is still called food. However, even more amazing to me is that it contains nothing to help a person maintain their mental health through the day. And why is this important? Why does it matter that our foods have not only less sugar, but also fewer ingredients? It’s important because you feel what you eat and you only feel as good as the food you eat. Further, it’s important because this is a food stuff that’s regularly being used for breakfast and snacks. And if you start your day with things that are devoid of nutrients, high in sugar, and made of chemical compounds that we can’t even pronounce, we will be left feeling hungry and miserable for the rest of the day. If you don’t believe that a Pop-Tart is missing most of the ingredients to help with how you feel, take a look at the first eight ingredients: fat (highly processed oils) and sugar or items processed as sugar (refined flour).

Remember that sugar, or actually too much sugar, causes us to over-eat, feel irritable, have medical issues including inflammation (which is related to depression), and weight gain. If we remember this, it is easy to see that consuming a product like this, with 36 grams of refined carbohydrates, would leave us in a worse place through the day if consumed for a meal or even a snack.

But, perhaps this over abundance of sugar and chemicals in Pop-Tarts would not offend me so much if they were only marketed as a snack food. But the fact is that they are now being marketed as a nutritious food. The new Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts 20% DV Fiber Frosted Strawberry toaster pastries are advertised as having 20% of your dietary value of fiber and being made with whole grains. What this means is that these Pop-Tarts contain 5 grams of dietary fiber in each serving–which is certainly better then the “less then 1 gram” of the traditional Pop-Tarts. But where is the information about the rest of the ingredients? It’s no where. They don’t talk about it or even mention it. Why would they? Really, what would they say: besides the whole wheat, the other 55 ingredients do nothing but help our bottom line? I suppose that wouldn’t sell many Pop-Tarts.

Further In a side by side comparison of regular Pop-Tarts and their new 20% DV Fiber Pop-Tarts counterparts, the supposedly healthier version has only one gram less of sugar. 1 gram! So, what has happened is that the healthier version has added some fiber, but has not reduced the amount of sugars or carbohydrates. In fact, the new “healthier” version of Pop-Tarts has eight of the first ten ingredients as either being processed in the body as sugar (refined flour) or as actual sugar.

Surely extra fiber is impressive and the fiber content has increased five fold. This is true. However, if we we stop to think about what it mean to have 5 grams of fiber we find that it really isn’t that amazing after all. If we were to make a comparison to a whole food such as an avocado, we would find that 1/2 an avocado has 4.5 grams of fiber, no added sugar (or anything else added for that matter), and 12 grams of slow release carbohydrates (not to mention untold amounts of vitamins, healthy fats, and minerals).

In the end, the reality is that those 5 grams of fiber aren’t that hard to come by in other natural, healthy foods, but they come at quite an expense when consumed in a Pop-Tart. In the end, the addition of all that sugar more than negates any health benefit one might have gained from the extra fiber. And in the end, all that sugar will just leave you feeling hungry sooner AND tired, moody, and irritable.

What can you do? For starters never buy a box of Pop-Tarts again. Not even for a special treat. Make more informed decisions. Buy products that have health benefits, or at the very least won’t hurt you. If you want sweet, try a medjool date. One date contains all the sweetness you could want plus natural fiber, minerals, and vitamins.

Instead, vote with your wallet. Tell Kellogs that what they are selling is junk and is not needed or wanted. Tell Kellog’s they can and should provide food rather then this box of sugar, colors and chemicals which they are trying to pass off as a good option.

But if its Pop Tarts you crave, try this homemade alternative adapted from Smitten Kitchen.

Pastry
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces) whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) organic, unsalted butter, cut into pats
1 large organic egg (rich in omega-3)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) organic milk (rich in omega-3)

1 additional large egg (to brush on pastry)

Cinnamon Filling (enough for 9 tarts)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, or more to taste
4 teaspoons whole wheat flour
1 large organic egg, to brush on pastry before filling

Jam Filling
3/4 cup (8 ounces) jam (no added sugar)
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water

Alternate fillings: 9 tablespoons dark chocolate chips (at least 70% cocao)

To make cinnamon filling: Whisk together the sugar, cinnamon, and flour.

To make jam filling: Mix the jam with the cornstarch/water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer, stirring, for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool. Use to fill the pastry tarts.

Make the dough: Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Work in the butter with your fingers, pastry blender or food processor until pea-sized lumps of butter are still visible, and the mixture holds together when you squeeze it. If you’ve used a food processor, transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Whisk the first egg and milk together and stir them into the dough, mixing just until everything is cohesive, kneading briefly on a well-floured counter if necessary.

Divide the dough in half (approximately 8 1/4 ounces each), shape each half into a smooth rectangle, about 3×5 inches. You can roll this out immediately (see Warm Kitchen note below) or wrap each half in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Assemble the tarts: If the dough has been chilled, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to soften and become workable, about 15 to 30 minutes. Place one piece on a lightly floured work surface, and roll it into a rectangle about 1/8″ thick, large enough that you can trim it to an even 9″ x 12″. [You can use a 9″ x 13″ pan, laid on top, as guidance.] Repeat with the second piece of dough. Set trimmings aside. Cut each piece of dough into thirds – you’ll form nine 3″ x 4″ rectangles.

Beat the additional egg and brush it over the entire surface of the first dough. This will be the “inside” of the tart; the egg is to help glue the lid on. Place a heaping tablespoon of filling into the center of each rectangle, keeping a bare 1/2-inch perimeter around it. Place a second rectangle of dough atop the first, using your fingertips to press firmly around the pocket of filling, sealing the dough well on all sides. Press the tines of a fork all around the edge of the rectangle. Repeat with remaining tarts.

Gently place the tarts on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Prick the top of each tart multiple times with a fork; you want to make sure steam can escape, or the tarts will become billowy pillows rather than flat toaster pastries. Refrigerate the tarts (they don’t need to be covered) for 30 minutes, while you preheat your oven to 350°F.

Bake the tarts: Remove the tarts form the fridge, and bake them for 20 to 25 minutes, until they’re a light golden brown. Cool in pan on rack.

Variety is the spice of life

February 26, 2011

Who doesn’t like to have those things that are tried and true? In my house peanut butter is that thing. It goes on toast, bananas, smoothies, dressing . . . you name it. It is such a natural food for us to reach for that we don’t give it a second thought. My children even love it out of the jar. And the reality is that it is a good source of fat, nutrients, and vitamins. So, when I ask them, why don’t you try something else, what I get back is why?

Why indeed? Why should they eat something else? What’s wrong with the same food as long as it’s a healthy choice? I mean, research shows that children like to watch the same television programs over and over, listen to the same music over and over, and play the same games over and over. Of course, we as parents can usually only stand to hear the wheels on the bus about 10 times. After that it’s don’t you know any other songs?

Food, however, is a bit different. First let’s talk about variety. The reality of the situation is that the american diet is not particularly varied. Most of the food we consume is some form of starch and fat; not too many vegetables, other then tomatoes; and limited amounts of fruit. According to “Human Diet: its Origin and Evolution,” by University of Arkansas anthropologist Peter Ungar and co-editor Mark Teaford of Johns Hopkins University, humans have evolved to eat a vast variety of foods. Ungar and Teaford point out that our ancestors, you know the ones–those guys who were barely able to walk upright, and had to adapt to eat what was available to them seasonally and regionally. They roamed and as such this adaptation was required if one was going to survive. Thanks to our ancestors ability to adapt you are here today reading this blog post.

Fast forward to the present, and we only have to hunt and gather at the local market, which is usually only a mile or two away. Not really the same–although those parking lots can be brutal. And now all we have to do is pick up one superfood bar and notice that it contains all the possible nutrients known to man. Or does it?

Our bodies require a variety of nutrients, of which no single food contains. From essential amino acids, to protein, calcium, magnesium, and fats. While it would be nice to be able to get an everything meal, it really is impossible. Can you imagine how heavy the meal would be? The best we can do is eat healthy and make good choices.

This is where variety comes in. In our family, and with the peanut butter, we certainly are getting a great source of nutrition. However, it lacks in many areas. While peanut butter is a great source of niacin, vitamin e, manganese, it is fully lacking in vitamins k, a, c, and b12. And this is the reason variety is needed.

When we eat just one food, whether it be any one of a number of super foods or a piece of candy, we are digesting all the nutrients in that food. But unless we add variety we are missing out on all others. But there’s more. If we don’t get the other nutrients, we may not be able to digest or use the nutrients we do get.

For example, vitamins a, d, e, and k are fat soluble. This means that unless we consume some sort of fat with them, they are not able to be fully digested and absorbed into our body. Conversely, iron and calcium together don’t allow for the absorption of the other. This is why variety is truly the spice of life, for without variety we are not getting all that is required for optimal life.

With that in mind I’m off to grab something new and tasty . . . unless the peanut butter grabs me first.

Omega-3, bilberries, and depression

February 16, 2011

I live in what is considered the urban jungle–a great and thriving American metropolis. We are conveniently located to everything that we could possibly need–like entertainment, schools, and a wide array of food stores and restaurants. Whether you live in a large city like mine or a small town, if you look around you will probably be surprised at just how many of the stores and shops in your town sell some sort of food product. And while access to all of this food has many benefits, it also has its drawbacks. I am within a walk or a drive of a plethora of foods that are loaded with hydrogenated fats, sugar, and additives. In fact, when I drive around my neighborhood I find that the foods that are convenient and readily available are overwhelmingly foods such as ice cream, fast food, bagels, and sugar filled coffee drinks. When I think about how prevalent these foods are, it’s no wonder that America, and nations like ours, suffer from some of the highest rates of depression in the world.

In point of fact, according the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is both the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44 and the leading cause of disability worldwide among persons five and older. Further, according to Ronald C. Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator on a world wide study on depression for the WHO, Americans top the list as suffering from the most depression, at 9.6% of the population.

This leads me to this book. The basic premise of The Jungle Effect is that there are places in this world that are considered “cold spots”: places or communities where there are an unusually low number of people suffering from a particular disease. The author, Daphne Miller, is a board-certified family physician, professor, and educated at no less then Brown University and Harvard Medical School. She examines the role that diet has played in decreasing these diseases in various parts of the world.

Okay, so you can imagine that I am whole-hog into this book. It fits with one of my primary philosophies of life–you feel what you eat. But what I loved most about this book is that she not only addresses medical issues such as diabetes and cancer, but also addresses the issue of depression.

Miller found that a cold spot for depression is Iceland. Of all places in the world, Iceland, where there is no sun for half the year and then constant sun for the other, has the lowest rates of depression in the world. The reason? Diet. Specifically fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Icelanders consume more fish then almost any other population; even more than the Japanese. Study after study looking at the mental health and diet of Icelanders shows a strong connection between their diet and the low incidence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and depression. This research is strongly supported by studies in the United States which also show that Omega-3 fatty acids are a critical element in reducing inflammation which can cause depression and other illnesses.

In the case of Icelanders omega-3s are only one part of the trifecta for reducing or eliminating depression. They also eat a large amount of bilberries, which are high in antioxidants and they don’t consume many simple carbohydrates.

Thankfully Miller doesn’t suggest that we need to eat a diet identical to Icelanders. I mean, that would involve eating sheep brain that has been cooked in the skull. Not only could that prove difficult to locate in my local supermarket, but I’m pretty sure my kids would run screaming from the dinner table! What Miller does suggest is that we adopt a diet high in omega-3s and antioxidants, and low in carbs.

Another great aspect of this book is that Miller helps the reader understand how they can put these ideas into action.To be sure, most people know that what they put into their bodies matters. But most don’t understand exactly why or how the foods they eat impact their health–especially when it comes to their mental health. Even harder is sifting through all the research and media hype and applying that to our everyday food decisions–like what to make for dinner. This book provides some useful insight and direction for the average person looking to make healthy changes in their diet. For example, the end of the book provides a shopping list and recipe suggestions for people looking to incorporate many of these disease fighting foods into their every day diets.

For fighting depression, here are a few of the top picks.

Fish and Potato Mash

1 lb. white fish (such as cod or sole)

1 lb. waxy potatoes with skin on (such as fingerling), cut into 1 – 2 inch chunks

1 cup warm milk

1 tbsp butter or cream

Salt and pepper to taste

Chives or parsley for garnish

Cook fish for 3 – 5 minutes in a pot of boiling water until the fish becomes flaky. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Flake with a fork, making sure to remove any bones.

Meanwhile cook potatoes in same boiling water until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain water from potatoes. Add flaked fish, milk, and butter or cream and mash. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot scooped over Sweet and Sour Cabbage. Top with chives or parsley.

Fish cake variation

Take a 1/2 cup scoop of the hash, flatten into the shape of pancake and roll in bread crumbs and a dash of cayenne. Fry in a little bit of butter, until browned and crispy on the outside.

Sweet and Sour Cabbage

1 small red or purple cabbage, sliced thin into strips

1 apple, peeled, cored, and diced

1 cup blueberry juice, bilberry juice, or any deep colored, unsweetened juice

2-3 tbsp red wine or apple cider vinegar

3 whole cloves or 1/2 tsp ground cloves

1 tbsp butter

Honey and salt to taste

Place cabbage and apple in medium-sized saucepan. Stir in jice, vinegar, and cloves. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer on low for 45 minutes, stirring every so often. Cook longer if you prefer it softer. Add butter, allow it to melt and then stir it into the cabbage mixture. Taste first, then add honey or salt as desired.

Rye Bread

3 cups rye flour

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup maple syrup or honey

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 215 degrees. Mix dry ingredients. Add buttermilk and syrup. Turn dough out onto a clean surface and knead until soft, but not sticky. Add more buttermilk if needed. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a separate, well buttered loaf pan. Be sure to seal each pan tightly with foil so that the steam cannot escape. Place in the oven and bake for 10-12 hours.

Alternatively, bake at 325 degrees for 3-4 hours.

This bread will not look like a traditional loaf of bread. It doesn’t rise much and is dense with hard crust.

So, in honor of Icelanders everywhere, I am going to cook with more fish, consume more walnuts, and enjoy more berries with yogurt, but will probably skip the sheep.

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