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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Food: Bringing people closer together since always

Food is the center of life. I do not know how any one could argue that statement. If you think you can, by all means, I would love to hear your argument.
Food is necessary for nourishment and not just human survival, but for all living organisms. It is also what most bonding and social events are based around. When you have a birthday, you get a birthday cake. When you plan a wedding, the food is one of the most focused on factors. The same goes for just about any kind of party.
In the past week I went on a date with my boyfriend, went out with my mom and spent two days in the city with my best friend. The thing that all three of these events have in common is that food was at the center of all of these events. I don't consider this a bad thing, in fact it usually makes me really happy!
However, it usually makes my task of only eating local and/or organic and relatively healthy foods, quite difficult. I read in a magazine a few years ago that eating out is one of the worst things that you can do for your health. In a way, I agree. No matter how many modifications you make to your order (ie, no or little oil, steamed vegetables rather than sauteed, baked instead of fried) in reality you have no idea what the chef is putting in your food or how it is being prepared. However, it is such a social event, and going to a nice restaurant is really enjoyable and even exciting. Only doing it once in awhile makes it that much more of a novelty though.
My boyfriend and I rarely go out to eat, but when we do, we usually indulge in hibachi. There is a place near us that we have been to twice and have loved each time. Not only is the food amazing but the people there have been wonderful. Hibachi is the epitome of a socially oriented food event. The chef cooks right in front of you, talks to you, and tries to entertain you while shooting Saki into your mouth and lighting onion volcanoes on fire. The best part of the meal for me is the fact that you sit next to strangers and eat giving you an opportunity to make new friends. The first time we went we met an older couple who owns a jewelry store. The wife obviously had food issues, declaring that she did not eat all day just so she could indulge in this meal and that she usually drinks all of her calories, as she continued to order four glasses of wine. I am not judging her! She was a very charismatic person, but it always astounds me how much food controls people, in both good and bad ways. Her husband kept asking my boyfriend when he was coming into his store to pick out a ring for me. Nine years was the answer. ha.
The second time we went we met a younger couple, only 20 years old. They were both extremely friendly and intelligent and still in college. The girl was born and raised in Haiti and was there for the earthquake. She explained that she knows just about five languages and multiple instruments. My jealousy definitely peaked.
I met my friend in the city for Sunday brunch, which also included massive amounts of mimosas. We then went to Trader Joe's for some snacks and had dinner the following night followed by decadent hot chocolate made with soy milk and a gluten free chocolate and raspberry cake. The point is, most of the social plans that I take part in are based around food and I love every minute of it. This only proves to me more, how important food is in our lives, and how it can bring strangers together and bring closer people even closer.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Special eating habits and their social effect

I am a vegetarian and I have been since I was eight years old. The story goes that I was a picky eater and not very fond of meat in general, but would indulge in fast food burgers and hot dogs. My mother, coming from a loving place, stated that if I was only going to eat the bad meats then I should just not eat them at all. I do not think she ever imagined that I would agree with her. However, seventeen years later, I am still holding strong to my vegetarian ideals.
When I was young my eating habits seemed to be more of an inconvenience than anything else. People were always very concerned about my health, badgering me with questions about where I get my protein, iron and calcium and so on and so forth. A young me used peanut butter as a go to answer, which seemed to quiet concerned strangers. An older me can give you a wider list of different foods including spinach, broccoli, almond milk and avocados, amongst others. Back then the only other vegetarian I knew of was my aunt and it was seen as an odd way of life, potentially dangerous to your health and of a slightly hippie mentality.
The decision to exclude meat from my diet seemed a natural one and I am grateful I made it so young, without really taking into account all of the pros and cons. I am not an aggressive vegetarian, I will not try to force my diet onto anyone else. I understand the concept of survival of the fittest and I support the idea of waste not, want not. If you are going to eat an animal, use the entire animal for everything you possibly can. I do not agree with hunting as a "sport." It's not a sport, it's simply cruel if the purpose of the game is to hang a head on your wall so the creepy fake eyes can follow me around your room, haunting me with guilt, even though I didn't actually kill the poor animal. I digress.
It took me awhile to understand that you can be a vegetarian and still not be healthy. Through high school and my early college years, I ate everything besides meat, which included such lovely "foods" as Doritos, ice cream, cheese and crackers, pizza and more. I did not pay attention to nutritional value and I certainly did not make sure I got my fruits and veggies each day. Now I do and as a whole I feel happier and healthier.
What I find interesting though is the fact that being a vegetarian has become common place. There are meat-less options at every restaurant now, which was not the case a decade ago. Eating at other people's houses still makes me feel like I am putting them out, but only because they unnecessarily stress about it. When people cook meat based dishes, they almost always include a side such as vegetables or starch that are perfectly okay for me to eat. I still have people apologize for eating meat in front of me, which makes me laugh. The biggest concerns that I have when I eat out are, is my food being cooked on the same griddle as bacon or other meats and is there chicken or beef stock in the soup or sauce.
I ate breakfast at the diner the other day and took one bite of my home fries and literally had to spit them out. All I tasted was bacon, which means that they were probably covered in bacon grease. What a lot of people do not understand is that I have not eaten meat in such a long time, that when, on the rare occasion, I do unfortunately ingest something that has a meat product in it, I get sick, mostly indigestion.
My best friend has a gluten free diet. She is flour free because it actually makes her sick, not because it recently became trendy. When the two of us go out to eat, it is an interesting time. I can't have meat, she can't have bread or certain fried foods and the server is bombarded with questions from the both of us. I am actually a server and sympathize with their plight. I had a woman come into to eat and she was gluten free AND a vegetarian. "Good luck Lady," is all that went through my head, even though I sympathized with her.
Different diets and eating habits have become more accepted than when I was young, but it still makes social gatherings somewhat awkward. My boyfriend and I went upstate to visit my great aunt and uncle and they made dinner for when we arrived. My aunt cooked pasta and a sauce with sausage in it. She didn't realize I didn't eat meat and when I told her she offered to scoop the sauce out around the sausage. I felt terrible, but I had to object and opt for butter on my pasta. I don't think she minded, but it still makes for an awkward few minutes.
I love to go out for a nice dinner every once in awhile, mostly for the atmosphere, but most of the time I enjoying cooking at home, where I know exactly what I put into my food. In addition, I love cooking and find it incredibly therapeutic. Sometimes cooking can take a long time and sometimes I am very hungry and not patient at all. A great vegetarian and healthy option is roasting vegetables, which does not take much effort or time and yields a fulfilling dish. One of my favorite options is roasted broccoli with feta cheese. Below is the recipe, so if you ever find out you have a surprise vegetarian guest coming over, you can whip up this dish without making them feel like an inconvenience. More on the health benefits of vegetarianism and the lifestyle choices it includes later.
Roasted Broccoli with Feta Cheese
Two large heads of organic broccoli, chopped
1 Lemon
Olive Oil
Feta cheese
Chop broccoli into small florets and lay spread out on a baking sheet. Coat broccoli evenly with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Get your hands dirty by tossing the broccoli to get all the ingredients mixed together. Cut lemon in half and squeeze lemon juice to coat all of the broccoli. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until it starts to brown slightly. Let cool and toss with one cup of feta cheese and squeeze the other half of the lemon for another kick of flavor.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The dairy debate

I have always been cereal's #1 fan. I love all kinds of cereal. In college I lived off of fruity pebbles and Cap'N Crunch. Once health became a concern of mine, I shifted my adoration toward Special K. I have not always had the same affection for milk, but if there was a morning when I woke up and there was no milk, it was common that I would throw a fit and run to the store because without it, no cereal could be had. And that, my friends, is the definition of a travesty.
I am still a lover of cereal, but now I only consume healthy, organic brands such as Puffins or Kashi, adding bananas and blueberries for an extra kick of flavor and nutrients. I also stopped using milk. Oh, the horror! Where will I ever get my calcium from? Not from milk. I switched to Almond Milk about six months ago and I will never go back. When I am in a pinch, I opt for soy milk, but on a daily basis, it is too sweet for me. Almond Milk has been the perfect substitution for me. I discovered its glorious yummy-ness while testing out shake recipes from the Ithaca-based vegetarian restuarant, Moosewood's, cookbook "Cooking For Health." My favorite almond milk is the Trader Joe's brand. The Blue Diamond option is good too, but even their unsweetened one is still a little too sweet for my liking.

I know that for most of the population milk is an important part of their diet (or so they think), and I know that not everyone will agree with my opinions regarding milk and dairy. The theory I am about to present to you may seem very odd and abnormal, but really think about it before you dismiss it completely. When other mammals nurse their young, they provide milk from their own bodies. As humans we have the option to do the same, and some do. However, we are the only mammals who stop drinking the milk of our own people and drink the milk from another animal. I am not suggesting that we bottle breast milk and drink it through old age, but drinking milk from a cow or a goat does not seem natural to me. Once I started thinking about this concept something switched inside me that made me turned off to milk. I should also announce to you that I am a vegetarian, and have been since I was eight years old, so this way of thinking seems normal to me.

Besides my crazy theory, books and research that I have read suggest that businesses and government agencies have a financial investment in the dairy industry, explaining the widespread campaigns for milk and cheese. 'Got Milk' anyone? There is a lot of muddling by different businesses and governmental agencies and organizations to make milk seem necessary for good health and to fight against osteoporosis. People in other countries do not drink as much milk as Americans, and according to the book "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" by Walter Willett countries that consumed less calcium actually had less bone fractures than those who consumed more. The statistics regarding dairy are simply confusing.

This holiday season I consumed two pieces of cheese cake, one on Christmas Eve and the other on Christmas. Now, in full disclosure, I have not given up all dairy. I have tried and failed, but continue to keep my overall dairy intake to a minimum. Milk seemed to be easier and more important to me to give up. After eating each slice of cheese cake, my stomach started to feel upset, I became slightly lethargic and overall I just felt not right. What struck me about this was that it was the first time that I had anything largely dairy based since giving up milk. Cheese cake is made with mostly dairy products, including cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, butter and milk. This made me question if I might be lactose intolerant.

According to the Ohio State University Medical Center approximately 30-50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. This may seem like a small amount of people, when the United State's population is over 300 million, but my guess is that a lot of people go undiagnosed because we are taught from a very young age, in the cafeteria's of our schools, that "Milk does a body good."
By cutting out most of my dairy intake I have noticed how my body reacts when I have a small amount, and although this is a self-diagnosis, based on the bloating, abdominal pain and cramps, that are listed as symptoms, I think I am victim of dairy sensitivity.

Milk is a substance that is filled with hormones, not just from the animal it comes from, but also the antibiotics that are given to the cow which has been linked to increased cases of acne. Hormonal changes are what cause blemishes to frequent teenagers. Not to mention cows that have been treated with growth hormones so they produce more milk. Also, cows naturally eat grass, but the animal farms have become a business and feeding them grain or soy has become common, which does not produce healthy cows or milk.
The documentary "Food Inc." and the book "What to Eat" by Marion Nestle, were the two biggest factors for me in questioning my milk and other dairy intake. From watching Food Inc. my boyfriend coined the term "Poo Corn," which we use to refer to anything that is processed, isn't organic or was made by feeding animals corn or soy. We both use the term as a normal part of our vocabulary now, which results in weird stares from people, but it's a term that I am sure will catch on.
In Nestle's book she has a lot of information about milk and dairy products. One of the things that shocked me most was her explanation of the sans milk product, Lactaid. I have had Lactaid before and personally I thought it was absolutely disgusting, and now I know why. Lactaid is actually made from milk and is produced by the milk industry. However the lactose, or sugar in milk, is doubled in this product! Lactose is a double sugar which is too big to be absorbed by adults, but babies make lactASE, which splits it into single sugars which are easier to absorb. The lactose in breast milk motivates babies to nurse, but by the time most children turn five years old they stop making lactase, which means the lactose is not easily absorbed anymore and physically we do not need the enzyme anymore.
Nestle also brought to my attention a blurb that I now notice on all organic milk and dairy products that I purchase. On anything that claims to be hormone and antibiotic free, there will be a side note that says, "The FDA has found no significant difference from milk derived from rbST treated cows and those not treated." The natural estrogen released by cows is a small amount and does not seem to affect humans, however dairy farmers can inject cows with growth hormones, making them produce 10 to 20 percent more milk. An agricultural company, Monsanto, produces the most widely used hormone. If you do not know much about this company, I encourage you to google it. To paint a picture of what kind of company they in fact are, they are responsible for milk not being labeled as treated with rbST. Their argument was that by labeling milk as treated with the growth hormone, the public would think that there was something different or dangerous about the milk. They are also responsible for the nice warning I see on all of my bST free products that I buy. They argued that all milk has bST since cows make a natural form of it and therefore the statement is misleading.

Calcium is definitely an important part of our diet, but it can be consumed by eating green vegetables such as broccoli, fish and yogurt. Vitamin D is also essential in absorbing Calcium, which is why in addition to eating my veggies I take supplements of both, along with Omega-3's and iron. I support taking supplements, however, there are arguments against that as well, which is a discussion for another post.

My suggestion is to either buy certified organic milk, which contains less hormones and is made by grass fed cows or to transition to almond or soy milk. I am not a doctor or scientist, but my opinions have been formed based on research and personal experience. Check out the links in this blog for more information and leave comments or questions!
Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Walter Willet
Got Milk Campaign

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Read this blog because it's magical

I use the term magical loosely. Unfortunately when you open my blog on your browser, fairy dust will not engulf you into a hazy state of happiness and wonder, and it is definitely not comparible to Disney World. However, it will be full of great tidbits of info regarding how to try to balance everything that you are expected to do and everything you want to do, while trying to reamain or become sane and healthy. I can tell that you are nodding your head in agreement now, "Yes, this is a magical blog!"
Everyday I feel as though I am standing on one foot (in my mind I look serene and I am attemping a yoga pose) while outside forces do their best to knock me on my behind. Even on days that I declare "lazy" days, I feel guitly that I am not doing something, anything. Life is about living it the best we possibly can manage, and that is why this magical blog exists. I have always been interested in nutrition and fitness, which I believe are huge factors in the balancing act, but over the past few months, I have realized that cooking, baking and doing crafts, make me beyond happy and peaceful. I will be sharing my ideas on here in hopes that it might do the same for you.
Thanks for reading!