Food that makes you hungry

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet was strongly emphasized. We did some obsessive calculations to make sure our menus do not contain more than 30% of calories from fat (this may not seem very low, but it is when you consider that fat contains twice more calories, per weight unit, than protein or carbohydrates). Cholesterol was to be feared, hated and avoided at all costs: thus, low-fat meat and dairy products, yolk-less omelettes, and not a word about cream and butter.

On the other hand, there was a surprisingly lenient attitude towards sugar and refined carbohydrates, and in general the outlook on food was very skeletal, taking into account primarily the basic units of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The underlying message was that it’s acceptable to eat an overprocessed, nutrient-deficient diet and compensate for it with supplements and artificially enriched foods. Some of our professors went even as far as to say that in the modern world, it’s virtually “impossible” to get all the essential nutrients without a multivitamin supplement.

My attitude is vastly different today, years after I first came across Nourishing Traditions and other literature that emphasized the deficiencies of modern nutrition. I am now an advocate for wholesome foods prepared in the home kitchen from basic natural ingredients and consumed in their whole, unrefined state. I quit being a vegetarian, we eat a lot more animal fat than we used to, particularly more butter, and in about five or six years since starting this dietary change, we haven’t seen an increase in either weight or cholesterol levels.

The low-fat dietary trend does seem to be sputtering out in the professional circles, but decades of propaganda aren’t so easy to ignore. A lot of people are still wary of eggs and think margarine is superior to butter because it doesn’t contain cholesterol. On the other hand, there is little discussion of how to avoid refined sugar, and the prevalent opinion is that a bit of indulgence in that quarter is harmless unless you are a diabetic. What people don’t seem to realize is that type 2 diabetes doesn’t just spring out of the blue; it takes years of unhealthy eating and insulin imbalance to get there, and if you indulge in sugar, you are at risk.

Reading Sugar Blues, by William Dufty, made me acknowledge two important facts: one, sugar really is addictive, and two, I’m one of the addicts.

For many, many people, eating one square of chocolate, one cookie or one scoop of ice-cream isn’t enough. They want more and more, until they feel sick. There are two reasons for this. The first is that eating sugar causes an upsurge of insulin, which makes sugar enter the cells quickly: thus, the blood sugar level peaks and then quickly drops, making you want to eat more sugar. When your blood sugar is low, you feel hungry; sugary foods will never make you full and satisfied in a healthy, wholesome way.

The second reason is that sugar acts upon a reward center in the brain. “Normal” food acts upon it too, making us feel satisfied after a good meal, but sugary food has a more powerful effect. And when you get used to sugar, it gets more and more difficult to stimulate the reward center with normal food (just like in Narnia, when Edmund wants nothing but Turkish Delight after tasting the enchanted sweet). It takes a period of detox to rewire your brain and make it possible to appreciate and enjoy simple basic food again.

Sugar addiction is not of a kind to make you crouch in a dark alley, looking for a dealer. It isn’t about to send you into rehab or make the social workers take your children away. The stuff is waiting for you everywhere – at supermarket aisles, coffee shops, family dinners, children’s birthday parties. It looks innocent and inviting and is socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, if you spend hours thinking of and longing for the dessert you are going to eat, or battling your sweet cravings, that is addiction.

What I find really helpful is to have alternative “reward foods” around in place of sugar – fresh and dried fruit, unsweetened fruit leathers, nuts of all kinds, good cheese, very dark chocolate with no added sugar. These take away the emotional aspect of feeling deprived when you can’t have your favorite treats. I do hope that my husband will become, in time, as convicted about the issue of sugar and refined carbohydrates as I am, and that these unhealthy foods will disappear from our pantry shelves forever.

Because of early conditioning, I am probably going to continue fighting my sugar cravings for the rest of my life. But at least now I know what I’m up against, and also how important it is to win this battle. A chocolate bar is on one side of the scale. On the other side are my health, strength, well-being, energy and mood. Put this way, the choice really is obvious.

The business of bread

Carmen writes, in the context of making sourdough bread:

I was wondering, if you would have the time to write a post about the differences between different types of flour. You have hinted before that some are more nutritious than others, and I tried to do a google search, but there were too many unknown terms, and I didn’t have the time to properly digest the information.

The grains most commonly used in the Western world are wheat as a strongly dominating first, rye, and barley. In recent years spelt, an ancient grain of the wheat family is making a comeback as well, and spelt flour and bread are available in many stores.

All of the aforementioned grains contain gluten, though in slightly different forms. A word about gluten: this famous protein is what gives bread its shape, elasticity and lift. The higher the gluten content, the better the bread will come out. You can make bread from gluten-free grains such as corn, teff, quinoa or buckwheat, but it won’t be bread in the form of the high, shapely, crusty loaf most of us crave.how_to_make_sourdough_08213_16x9

Image source: BBC

People with Celiac disease should avoid gluten entirely, in all shapes and quantities. People with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, however, often find that they tolerate certain grains better than others, in particular spelt better than the commercial varieties of wheat, especially if the bread is made through long-rise fermentation process (as in sourdough).

Mankind has cultivated wheat for thousands of years, but the wheat that had been consumed throughout most of human history is not the same wheat in use today. In the 1960’s, commercial farmers switched to growing a new, modern hybrid of dwarf wheat. It provides easier processing and higher yields, but is also less nutritious (containing, in particular, less of certain minerals than traditional wheat) and, some studies claim, more allergenic. Evidence is a bit murky here, and it’s unclear how much the rise in sensitivity to wheat is due to the new genetic makeup, and how much to modern processing methods.

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, we were told that people should consume whole grains because the bran contain nutrients and fiber that are cast away in the process of making white flour. No one talked about the different varieties of wheat, however, nor of how grain fermentation partially breaks down the gluten and makes the nutrients in whole grains more easily absorbed. In particular, fermentation activates the enzyme phytase, which breaks down the phytic acid binding minerals such as calcium and magnesium in the hull of the grain.

It might not be scientifically proved, but many people who can’t tolerate commercial wheat bread respond a lot better to long-fermented breads made from traditional grains. Of course, this only goes for people who do not have Celiac disease – if you do, avoid any gluten-containing products altogether. 

The type of bread I generally recommend is made from whole rye, barley or spelt (or a combination of these), using a long-rise fermentation process. You can obtain such bread in many artisan bakeries or make it in your own kitchen. The results might not be as reliable as when using baker’s yeast, but the nutritional and culinary benefits are well worth it.

I think spelt flour is the best option for people with conservative taste, because of its resemblance to wheat. Personally I love rye bread, but some people (my family, for instance) find it too dark, dense and dominant-tasting.

If you are new to baking with whole grains, it should be noted that bread from whole grain flour will always rise slightly less well, and be a little more dense, than bread made from white flour. The reason for this is, again, the gluten content. Because whole grain flour includes the bran and germ – parts of the grain which do not contain gluten – the amount of gluten in whole grain flour, per cup, is lower than in white flour. This is sometimes off-putting for people who are used to commercial spongy white bread, but I think it’s a matter of habit and mindset: just because the food industry has gotten us used to soft, sweet bread, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be.

Once you get the taste for real bread, there’s no looking back. Personally, one of my favorite light meals – as breakfast, lunch or dinner – is a slice of artisan sourdough bread with some farm cheese and a ripe tomato. Yum!

Common breastfeeding misconceptions

The more time goes by on this parenting journey of mine, the better I realize how important it is for every nursing mother and baby to have a pediatrician who is not just supportive of breastfeeding, but thoroughly educated about it – and unfortunately, they seem to be rare.

 

Back in university, I only had one course dedicated to infant nutrition, which emphasized the importance of breastfeeding but didn’t cover many important details such as supply and demand, possibility of poor latch, overactive letdown, distracted nursing, and many other common issues breastfeeding mothers often have to deal with. I know that in medical schools, more often than not even less is learned about this wonderful natural way of feeding babies.

 

Most pediatricians today tell mothers they should nurse their babies – if everything goes smoothly, if no problems arise, and if the baby is gaining weight strictly according to age-appropriate charts. From stories of fellow mothers, many pediatricians have only a vague concept that breasts make milk, and have all too many misconceptions, such as:

 

* It’s very common to have inadequate milk supply.

* A mother’s milk supply can dry up for no reason and it’s normal; it isn’t worth the trouble to check why this happens.

* Whatever a mother does or doesn’t do, it doesn’t affect her milk supply and therefore it’s pointless to try and improve it.

* Each baby needs to eat at such-and-such intervals, and weight gain should be such-and-such number each week.

* Weighing a baby before and after a feeding is a good way to assess how much food the baby gets throughout the day, because the amount of milk a baby gets per nursing session is the same every time.

 

I’m not saying pediatricians have no clue. They certainly have lots of knowledge, and their advice and opinion regarding a child’s health should be taken most seriously. But – and this is a serious but – don’t be overwhelmed by someone’s authority just because he is a doctor. Western medicine often has an impatient, quick-fix attitude, which is good for acute conditions, but many times displays little knowledge and much arrogance towards treatment of anything that has to do with chronic illnesses, allergies, and nutrition.

 

In certain areas, nurses tend to know more than doctors; or less. I had a nurse tell me that even if breastfeeding is going well, it’s recommended to supplement with formula starting from four months.

 

Many medical professionals have an attitude that can be described as well-meaning but misguided. Be careful and discerning.