Around 300 BC, Hippocrates wrote that "all diseases begin in the gut." Without a healthy digestive system, other systems in the body don't get the nutrients they need to function, and can start to break down. Deficiency in vitamins and nutrients have been linked to problems ranging from depression or ADD to seasonal allergies and susceptibility to the common cold.
Here are 5 easy things you can do to naturally improve your digestion:
1. eat slowly and chew your food
Saliva contains enzymes that break down carbohydrates, starting the digestive process before you even swallow your food. Swallowing big un-chewed chunks of food also decreases the nutritional value you're getting from your food, because whatever is on the inside of the chunk doesn't get exposed to digestive enzymes. Eating more slowly and thoroughly chewing each bite will maximize how much of your food gets absorbed. Plus, you're less likely to eat more than your body needs - if you inhale your food, your brain doesn't get the "I'm full" signal from your stomach until it's way too late.
2. eat actual food
No matter how slowly you chew it, you're not going to get much nutritional value from a candy bar or a fast food burger. Cutting out processed food not only reduces your exposure to toxins like preservatives and inflammatory additives, it also makes room in your fridge for real, nutritious food. Not sure what I mean by "real food"? Here's a post about it.
3. eat more acid
Despite the huge marketing of antacids for conditions like heartburn or GERD, it's actually very common for people to not have enough stomach acid. Sometimes, what feels like heartburn can actually be food sitting in the stomach, not getting broken down. Apple cider vinegar or lemon juice are great for digestion, you can dissolve a teaspoon of either in hot water and add honey for a digestive tea.
4. eat fermented foods (no, not booze, sorry)
Fermentation has a ton of health benefits. The modern diet often doesn't include many fermented or cultured foods, and a diet high in sugar and processed food can kill a lot of the healthy bacteria and micro-organisms in the gut (or allow unhealthy ones to take over). An imbalance in gut flora is the secret culprit behind many digestive complaints. Fortunately, fermented foods like live-culture sauerkraut or kombucha can add beneficial organisms and restore the balance. Just make sure what you're getting is organic, alive, and minimally processed. The best way is to make it yourself, but if you don't have time, I love Farmhouse Culture's krauts.
5. de-stress before meals / don't eat and run
If you're always eating on the go, chances are you're not digesting your food as well as you'd like. Digestion happens in parasympathetic nervous system mode, which means your body is relaxed and your sympathetic nervous system is quiet. If you eat under stress, like while driving or doing work (yes, even if you like the work), your body stays in sympathetic mode and digestion is shut down. Eating while watching TV or looking at a computer screen does the same thing – even if you don't feel "stressed" per se, you're still in sympathetic mode.
So, shut the computer, turn off the TV, put down the work, and enjoy your food!
I am a huge food-nerd. I read cookbooks cover-to-cover like novels, and if I have downtime where I'm sitting in front of the computer, I'm probably reading food blogs. (Or feminist / political tirades, but that's a story for another day.)
Anyway, yesterday I found an amazing concept that I can't believe I never thought of before: home-made cup of noodles!
Put a few tablespoons of sauce base in the bottom of a jar. Add shredded vegetables and some kind of noodle that doesn't need much cooking - I like kelp noodles a lot, they taste a little like rice noodles (pretty neutral) but don't clump together as much. When you're ready to eat, fill the jar with boiling water and let sit for a few minutes... instant soup, only without 400 grams of sodium and MSG, and whatever else is in instant ramen packets. Genius!
For the past few days, I've been using kelp noodles, finely sliced shiitake mushrooms, and grated zucchini and fennel. I also got some spinach, but haven't used it yet. You could also use things like broccoli or cauliflower, I'd recommend pre-steaming them so they're slightly soft. I'd also recommend pre-cooking any greens you plan to add, otherwise they'll be too fluffy and take up the whole jar.
Here are some soup-base ideas. Use these ratios as a starting point and adjust to your own taste.
half tablespoon miso
1-2 inches grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
1 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon rice vinegar (or to taste, I use more)
1/8 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Put all the sauce ingredients in a small pot and cook until the miso is dissolved and ginger is fragrant. Add some sambal olek or sriracha if desired. Pour into the bottom of your jar and add veggies and noodles.
Thai curry broth:
1/8 cup chicken stock
1-2 inches grated fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, crushed or finely chopped
half teaspoon red curry paste
1 teaspoon soy sauce or tamari
1/8 cup coconut milk (full fat, unsweetened)
Cook the ginger and garlic in the chicken stock until fragrant. Add the curry paste and soy sauce and cook until curry paste is fully dissolved. Remove from the heat, add the coconut milk, and put in the bottom of the jar. Add the veggies and noodles, add some cilantro leaves and a slice of lime to garnish.
I'll post more "instant soup jar" recipes as I make them. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!
It's fig season! I love figs, they are probably my favorite fruit. Last Friday, I went to a family friend's ranch in Washington and picked 11 pounds of figs. I can eat a lot of figs, but 11 pounds is A LOT of figs, so I had to do something with them besides eat myself sick.
Here's what I made:
Fig, blue cheese, and prosciutto biscuits
Here is a basic buttermilk biscuit recipe:
The easiest way to ruin biscuits is to over-work them, so you want to mix / flatten / knead as little and as gently as possible. I only folded the dough once, then gently pressed it flat on wax paper. Thinly slice the figs and arrange a layer of figs, a layer of prosciutto, and a (thin) layer of blue cheese crumbles. Then, carefully roll the biscuit dough into a spiral around the toppings, using the wax paper for support so it doesn't fall apart. Cut the roll into slices and arrange on a baking sheet, then bake as directed. (Alternatively, you can just roll the figs and prosciutto and sprinkle the cheese on top halfway through baking.)
I also made fig ice cream, which requires either an ice cream maker or the desire to stand there and churn for an hour. I can't take credit for this recipe, it's from the Martha Stewart website:
The vanilla custard base is a great place to start experimenting if you want to make your own ice cream, you can add pretty much anything to it. It looks quite simple, but when you're cooking the egg and milk mixture, you have about a 20-second window between perfect custard and scrambled eggs. If you think "it looks pretty thick, I wonder if it's done?" that's when you should take it off the heat.
I'll upload pictures soon, forgot to take them when I was cooking yesterday.
(This is Martha's picture)
Have a favorite fig recipe? Put it in the comments!
This is one of my favorite salads. It's simple to make and as long as you don't let the goat cheese sit in the beet juice for too long, it looks beautiful too!
Beet slices with mint and goat cheese
2-3 large beets, whole
handful of fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons minced shallot (or sweet onion if you prefer)
mirin (available in Asian stores, you can use simple syrup if you can’t find it)
salt and pepper to taste
crumbled goat cheese
Wash the beets and trim the greens (leave a few inches of stems on). Boil until tender, 20-40 mins depending on the size of the beets – you can poke them occasionally with a fork to check. When the beets are done, run them under cold water and rub the skin off with your hands. You’ll look like you just murdered someone, so wear gloves if you plan on going anywhere.
While the beets are cooking, dice the onion very fine and chop the mint. Put both in a mason jar. Add rice vinegar, olive oil, mirin, and salt and pepper to taste. About a quarter cup of rice vinegar to a third cup of olive oil to 1-2 tablespoons mirin. It will depend how sweet you want it, I usually use 1 T mirin and equal parts oil and vinegar, but I like things more vinegary than most people. Start with a tablespoon of mirin, you can always add more but it’s very hard to correct once it’s too sweet. Shake it all up in the jar and taste it, correct the vinegar – oil – sweetener – salt ratios to personal taste.
Slice the beets very thin on a mandolin (or with a knife, slice as thin as possible). Arrange the slices in layers on a serving plate. Drizzle each layer with the dressing, making sure there is mint and onion on each. Top with the goat cheese crumbles just before serving. (If you want to store it for a few days, leave the goat cheese off until you want to serve it, otherwise the cheese will absorb all the beet juice and turn into bright pink sludge.)
So simple, and so tasty! Pairs well with a crisp white wine or cold sake.
(this is part 2, part 1 is here)
What does it mean to have a healthy diet? People change their diet for so many different reasons, it's difficult to know what "eating right" means anymore. When I ask patients to describe their diet, most people say something like "I try to eat pretty healthy." However, everyone means something completely different when they say that. Some people mean they are vegetarian, or vegan, or gluten free. Some people eat only salad, or only "lean meat," or they take a lot of supplements, or they avoid fast food but eat everything else. Almost everyone can agree that fast food is unhealthy, but there are so many other options, that's not a useful place to start.
I'm pretty sure that if you're here, reading an acupuncturist's lifestyle blog, you already know that diet is important, but the amount of conflicting information going around about diet is overwhelming. Everything seems like such a huge commitment. No matter why you want to improve your diet, here are 3 basic principles to start with:
1. Is this food actually food?
Food starts with ingredients, all of which are independently edible. If it has 3 components, 1 egg, ¼ cup of oil, and a tube of inedible paste (I'm looking at you, Pillsbury), that's not food. Nobody ever ate a bowl of sodium alginate for breakfast. If the ingredients list includes vague implications like "flavor" or "color," chances are one of those flavors or colors is not food. If you get rid of anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, you're already on the right track. If you need some extra inspiration, here's a list of some inedible things you might be eating: http://www.babble.com/babble-voices/grow-your-own/the-10-scariest-ingredients-in-processed-food/
2. Do I know where this food came from?
I'm a big fan of the farmers' market. Not just because they don't usually sell anything with polydimethylsiloxane in it, but also because it eliminates a level of distance that I think is a big part of the problem with our modern understanding of what constitutes "food." When food comes from the store and not from the ground, it's easy to be convinced by the shiny packaging and well-researched marketing devices. An orange doesn't look as exciting next to a box of Super Orange Gummy Blasters. The problem with the Super Orange Gummies is that they are not actually edible and will eventually give you diabetes, but of course when your kid is throwing himself on the floor because you won't buy them, it's hard to think about that. If you're lucky enough to live in a place that has farmers' markets, take advantage as much as you can. Bring your kids, and teach them that food is something that grows and not something that is manufactured. If you don't have a farmers' market, try to think like one. Look for food that comes from the ground. Think about the fact that your steak was once a cow, and think about what kind of life that cow had. Buy the happy cow, even if you don't care about the cow's happiness. If the cow was miserable its whole life that meat is going to be full of stress hormones, and chances are we're already making more than enough of our own. If the cow was infected its whole life, the meat is going to be full of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Think about your food from the beginning of its life (vegetables, too), and if any part of that process makes you uncomfortable, there's probably a good reason. If you avoid thinking about where your food comes from, ask yourself why.
3. How hard are they trying to sell this food?
Avoid anything that's being marketed to you. If they have to make it extra shiny to convince you it's edible, it probably isn't. Nobody is marketing kale, because it's just food. The gluten-free, sugar-free, high-calcium, low-sodium chocolate chip cookies are being just as heavily marketed as McDonald's, the only difference is the intended audience.
Many of you are probably thinking that this advice is fine if you have time to go to the farmers' market, find a recipe that your family will actually eat, and then cook every day. Your life isn't set up for that, you get home too late to cook and your kids hate vegetables anyway and it's not worth the hassle. Try this: on your next day off, find one recipe that looks appealing to you that is cooked from ingredients. Double the quantity the recipe calls for, make it on your day off, and separate it into single-portion freezer containers. You now have easy food for the week, and you actually know what's in it. Don't worry so much about whether it has the perfect proportion of protein to carbohydrates, just make sure everything in it is actual food. If you can, make sure most of it is vegetables of some kind.
Forming habits is hard, and if you think you have to make huge changes in your lifestyle to improve your diet, it's never going to happen. Start by finding a way to make your own food, even if the recipes are simple and you only manage to do it twice a week. It's better than nothing, and it will build on itself. If you're still not sure where to start, or you can't find a recipe, email me, I've got tons of them.
(this is part 1 of 2, part 2 is here)
Dieting is nothing new. We (like all animals) have a biological drive to eat all the food we can find as fast as possible, in case it runs out or gets stolen by a hyena. Early society had to create rules around food that made group cohesion more important than any selfish individual, or everyone would have ultimately starved. Few people would consider the South Beach Diet a modern version of sacrificing a goat to make it rain, but in many ways it's the same thing. The rules are different because the cultural priorities are different, but essentially it's society saying "you can't just eat whatever you want all the time." You can't control yourself, so social pressure will do it for you.
In modern society, we've mostly removed the religious imperatives for controlling your diet, and replaced them with personal imperatives like weight, or medical imperatives like high cholesterol or diabetes. So now people are in charge of making their own rules, and this is a problem because most people one, don't know how digestion works, two, think that being thin and being healthy are the same thing, and three, are overwhelmed with advertising every waking minute of the day. All of these things make people susceptible to fad diets.
Raw food is a fad diet. One of my pulse diagnosis teachers has told me that this is the third raw food wave he's seen in his 30-year medical career. Eating raw food is terrible for your body. One of the reasons humans have been so successful at the evolution / survival game is because we cook our food. Other large primates spend fully one third of their waking hours chewing, that's how much raw food you need to eat in order to sustain your body. The reason for this is that you can't absorb most of it. Essentially, cooking starts the process of digestion, and if you don't cook your food, your body has to work that much harder to get useful calories out of what you're eating. Some people are thinking "great! My body has to work harder, so it will burn more calories, and I'll lose weight!" Except in reality, your body just won't get those nutrients at all. You'll probably lose weight, but you'll be malnourished, and it's not sustainable. Richard Wrangham has a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human that talks more about this topic, if you're interested from an evolutionary perspective. The point is, cook your food.
Gluten free is a fad diet. Yes, of course there are real gluten allergies, and they are more common than they used to be. (Allergies in general are more common, and there are theories about why but nothing has been proven. That's a problem for another post.) The demand for gluten-free products exponentially exceeds the actual incidence of Celiac disease. I know a lot of people who say they feel better than ever after cutting out gluten, and I believe them. I just don't believe that gluten is the problem. Most of the wheat products we're eating today are so processed that your body barely recognizes them as edible. Of course you'll feel better if you stop eating that kind of crap. Being gluten free forces you to read the label of everything you buy, which is a great idea. Avoiding something like gluten or sugar or dairy that's in a lot of processed foods will prevent you from eating those processed foods, and you'll feel better. It doesn't really matter what you avoid, as long as it prevents you from eating things your body doesn't consider food. If you want to be gluten free, or vegan, or whatever, just make sure that the restriction isn't causing you to eat more processed foods. Buying gluten free macaroni with soy cheese is not healthier than regular macaroni and cheese. In many cases it's worse, because removing the gluten (or turning soy beans into something that could pass for cheese) means even more processing, and your body really has no idea what you're eating. The same goes for commercially produced gluten free bread: if it tastes like wheat bread but isn't, think about how many chemicals are required to make that happen.
Between the development of agriculture and the development of capitalism, we have done some very strange things to our food. If you're feeling totally overwhelmed with the variety of diets, health scares, additives, and allergies, start by taking a deep breath. Even if you already have diabetes or high cholesterol, it's not too late to start eating well. Part 2 of this topic will talk about what "eating well" actually means, and where to start.
In the meantime, here's a link to an interview with Michael Pollan talking about his new book Cooked, which I definitely recommend: https://soundcloud.com/inquiringminds/17-michael-pollan-the-science_of_eating_well/s-VpTd6 There's another interview first, which is also interesting, and the Michael Pollan interview starts at 13:30.