Being sneaky when cooking healthy

Several years ago Vicki Lansky authored a couple cookbooks to help young mothers make nutritious foods for their children such as yogurt popsicles (which were very yummy, by the way).  Back in the 90’s, fat was replaced by pureed fruit in an effort to reduce fat in baked goods.  More recently, Jessica Seinfeld has published cookbooks with recipes packed with hidden vegetables.  Are these behaviors faddish, sneaky, or do they have creative merit?

While some may prefer to serve foods whole and not pureed or mixed in a casserole,  I think of such additions as fortifying recipes and worthy of a try.  Fruit and vegetable consumption has been associated with decreased risks of cancer and heart disease. Increasing one’s intake by finding ways to add fruit and veggies to already familiar dishes is a good thing in my view.

If you are game for some creative activity in the kitchen, read on.

  • Children often prefer smooth textures.  My mom used a fork or potato masher to render foods easy to swallow. That said, blenders, processors, and ricers are useful tools to have on hand to get rid of chunks and smooth things out.  Hand blenders work well in both small and large pots. 
  • Tomato sauce is easily fortified with finely grated carrots.  The carrots also thicken the sauce, so thin according to taste.
  • Mashed cauliflower is a tasty addition to mashed potatoes, or use cauliflower as a base for a healthy mac and cheese. Rachel Ray offers a recipe for this dish, and Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian with Blue Cross Blue Shield recommends this recipe      for mashed potatoes.
  • Sweet potatoes are also healthy additions to recipes.  Make a few extra for dinner.  Then try one cup of leftover, mashed sweet potatoes in your favorite pancake or waffle recipe. Add a little cinnamon and nutmeg for a real treat.
  • Pureed prunes (yes, prunes) or those found in the baby food aisle work well in brownies and chocolate cake.  One can also reduce the fat by an amount equal to the pureed fruit. Or, just cut up the prunes and add them to a favorite muffin recipe.  So easy.
  • Beans are another food that can be mashed or pureed and added to many recipes such as mac and cheese, brownies, and cookies. Keep canned beans on hand for quick additions.
  • Beans also make great homemade veggie burgers.  Moreover, just about any vegetable can be added to make tasty burgers.
  • The more adventurous among you might want to try veggies in your cake, another recipe courtesy of Grace Derocha.
  • And don’t forget about yogurt. Yogurt has all kinds of uses.  One of my favorites is to substitute plain yogurt for mayonnaise in a waldorf-type salad.  To the apples and walnuts, add enough yogurt to cover the fruit.  By the way, raisins, dried cranberries, dates, and dried cherries are other tasty additions to this dish.

Get creative and add something extra to your recipes.


Do you suffer from migraines?

I have migraines.  These terrible all-body, life-interrupting sessions with pain started in 1998.  At first the migraines were hormonal or stress-related, but now they choose to visit at unpredictable times.  At least, it appears to be unpredictable.

So far, meds do not help.  And ice pack and dark room are my best weapons at this point.

So what is this topic doing on a nutrition blog?  Because I am practicing what I preach and am keeping a food diary of everything that passes through my lips on a daily basis.

My journal is simple, just a small spiral notebook that I keep on the kitchen counter.  At first I was noting food and meds and my calcium supplement.  Now I am including spices and brand names, just in case a food has a particular additive that my brain happens to dislike. 

Also, my journal includes activities during the day, such as working in the yard, and the changes in barometric pressure.

I plan to continue this for many, many weeks, in order to see any pattern to my migraines.

Oh, yes. I am also meditating at least once a day for 20 minutes.  My stretch goal is to increase my sessions to two a day, every day. 

Helpful books that I have read include The Migraine Brain:  Your Breakthrough Guide to Fewer Headaches, Better Health by Carolyn Berstein and Elaine McArdle and Relaxation Revolution:  The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing by Herbert Benson and William Proctor.

Wish me luck on my quest for answers!



More on the couch potato gene

For those pursuing more information on the couch potato gene, I am definitely not an expert in genetics.  But there are numerous articles on the gene or gene group thought to influence one’s willingness and/or ability to exercise.  The research involves human, animal, and even fruit fly studies. (Just thinking about fruit flies brings back horrible memories of high school biology classes and looking for red eye mutations, but I digress.)

The articles below suggest that our genes code for the production of certain chemicals called enzymes, important proteins that help reactions in our bodies to occur.  If a gene is slightly different in one person compared to another, then the proteins can be different and produce different results.  Red hair instead of blond or tall stature instead of short, for example.

At this point, studies are being done to see if humans have similar exercise challenges as found in animal models and if these are due to variations in our genes.

View the links below for more information.  If further motivated, look for original research on sites like PubMed and Medscape.–dont.html#ixzz1cP5PB1O





A baker’s dozen of healthy grilling tips for summer

With summer on the way, it is time to dust off and fire up the patio grill.  Here are some tips to help ensure not only a tasty outdoor meal but also a safe and healthy family experience.

  1. Wash hands often.  Wash hands thoroughly after handling any raw meat, poultry,      fish, or eggs.  Make this a family rule.
  2. Make sure that the grill is scrubbed clean before every use.  It is important to remove any leftover char or other residue to eliminate cancer-forming compounds and bacteria.
  3. Keep meat, poultry, and fish separate from other fresh foods such as salad items, vegetables and fruit.  This lessens the chance of bacterial contamination and food poisoning.
  4. Keep foods cold until serving or grilling.  Use insulated coolers and keep them in the shade when at a picnic area.
  5. Thaw meats in the fridge, not on the counter.  Again, this lessens the chance of food poisoning.
  6. Marinate meats before grilling in a citrus or vinegar-based marinade to help reduce cancer-forming compounds.  Do not reuse the liquid unless you boil it first.
  7. Place meats close enough to the coals to cook evenly throughout but not close      enough to burn.  If meats, poultry, or fish are too close to the coals, the outside will cook but the inside will not reach a temperature necessary to kill bacteria.
  8. Use clean dishes and serving utensils to transfer cooked food from the grill to the plate.  Dishes and utensils used for raw food and then not cleaned with hot, soapy water could be a source of bacteria and contaminate grilled or fresh food items.
  9. If partially precooking foods, make sure to place these items immediately on the grill.  Or, cook completely, cool until needed, and then warm on the grill.
  10. Avoid charring meat.  Cook to medium instead of well done. 
  11. Avoid flare-ups, another source of cancer-causing compounds.  Dripping fat can cause flame flare-ups, so trim the fat on meats and keep a spray bottle close by to put out flares.
  12. Use a food thermometer to check doneness.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that whole poultry, chicken breasts, and ground poultry reach 165 degrees.  Other ground meats should reach 160 degrees.  Beef, pork, lamb, or veal steaks, roasts, and chop should reach 145 degrees and then be allowed to rest for at least three minutes.
  13. If you are new to grilling or would like a refresher on operating a grill, check out the      safety tips offered by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA).

Now go out and enjoy your grill!

Don’t like exercising? Blame the couch potato gene

There now may be a realistic reason for not keeping with an exercise program.  Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham may have found a genetic link for the lack of energy or motivation that some people experience when exercising.

Researchers involved in the TIGER Study, or Training Interventions & Genetics of Exercise Response study, are looking into differences in participants DNA and how these differences may play a role in a body’s response to exercise.

Dr. Molly Bray began the five year TIGER study at UAB in 2011 and is investigating the exercise patterns of 3200 university students.  The latest findings show that participants with a certain variation of the gene called the FTO gene have a harder time staying with an exercise program than those participants with an alternate form of the gene. Those with the particular variation feel exercise is difficult and unpleasant.

Previous research has linked the FTO gene with obesity and increased body mass index (BMI). Related studies with the Amish, however, have shown that high levels of exercise may override the gene’s effects.  

Further research may shed light on how the FTO gene actually works in humans. Animal research may provide interesting clues.  A Canadian study using mice suggests that certain genes may affect how much energy cells produce when metabolizing food.  In this study, one group of mice were bred without a certain set of genes and compared to a group of normal mice. Those bred without the genes could not run as long as the normal mice. The researchers found that without the necessary genes, the muscle cells were not able to make enough energy to keep the mice exercising.

The discovery of the couch potato gene could go a long way to help those who have difficulty staying with an exercise program.  Hopefully the results of the TIGER study will encourage personal trainers to design programs that identify personal challenges and then fit recommended exercise with individual personalities and lifestyles.   By combining a well-designed exercise plan with healthy eating, people at risk for weight gain and related chronic conditions could stay motivated long-term and enjoy the benefits of a healthy life.

Keeping a food record can help with weight loss

Swimsuit season is fast approaching, especially for those of us in the South. For individuals who are trying to lose a few pounds and fit into this year’s version of cute beachwear, a food journal might be a good start. Keeping a record of what one eats is one of the best ways to change eating habits. A daily record might not only help with weight loss but also help one identity excesses or deficiencies of sugar, fat, sodium, fiber, and other nutrients.

Registered dietitians and other health professionals use food records often when working with clients. Besides being a record of what one eats, a food journal can give important clues as to how one manages food during the day.

For example, a journal can answer the following questions.

  • Does one enjoy a meal at a table or eat when driving, watching TV, or at a desk while answering email?
  • Are healthy meals or calorie-laden snacks the usual fare?
  • Are meals often skipped and replaced with a granola bar and a can of pop or cup of coffee and a candy bar?
  • How often does one eat fast food?
  • Are fruits and vegetables eaten on a daily basis?

Besides noting what eating challenges you might have, a food journal can also help build confidence and motivate you to do better. Calorie Count has an interesting entry about keeping a success journal to help with weight loss progress. Besides keeping track of what you eat, indicate what you do during the day that can help you succeed.

Keep notations of actions such as eating fruit when offered cookies, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking during your lunch break, getting up early to exercise, or taking a 10 minute meditation break. Reviewing such activities helps one take note of positive steps towards a goal and trains the brain to find the good choices you are making.

Beth Kitchin, a registered dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) offers helpful advice for keeping food records. And, she offers a printable food record to get you started.

Whether you are interested in weight loss or just trying to change eating habits for the better, give food journaling a try.

Food as a cosmetic?

According to the World Watch Institute, people in the United States spend $8 billion annually on cosmetics. In addition to this spending, billions are also paid for cosmetic surgery. People might be overlooking an easier and less expensive way to achieve a youthful glow. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham think that eating foods such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and salmon can help our skin look young.

Citrus fruits, the group that includes oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes, contain the essential nutrient vitamin C. This vitamin is an antioxidant, a substance that helps prevent and repair damage to cells. This damage can come from medications, sun exposure, and the environment.

Vitamin C is also necessary for the formation of collagen, a protein that gives skin tissue firmness and strength. Firm skin means fewer wrinkles. Healthy skin cells also mean improved moisture retention to combat dryness.

Other sources of vitamin C include most berries, kiwi, papaya, green and red peppers, broccoli, cabbage, and melons.

Tomatoes help the skin in two ways, first as a source of vitamin C and second as a source of the antioxidant lycopene. This nutrient also gives tomatoes their red color. For those readers that enjoy fresh tomatoes, consider that these vegetables offer the most lycopene when eaten cooked. And being fat-soluble, lycopene is more easily absorbed by the body when eaten with a source fat, such as heart-healthy olive oil.

Tomato sauce, tomato paste, and ketchup all contribute this important nutrient. Other sources of lycopene include watermelon and ruby red grapefruit.

Another pigment that offers benefits for skin is beta-carotene, found in orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, pumpkin and other winter squashes all offer this nutrient. Beta carotene is used by the body to make vitamin A, and is also another antioxidant. Note a trend here?

Although not orange in color, dark green veggies contribute beta-carotene to the diet, too. Spinach, kale, turnip greens, peas, green peppers, and broccoli are rich sources of this nutrient.

Last on the list are fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. These provide the essential fatty acids known as omega-3 fatty acids. Most know that omega-3’s protect the heart, but these fats also promote healthy skin by keeping moisture in the cells and helping to form collagen. Although animal sources of omega-3’s have been shown to be stronger when compared to plant sources, the body can convert some the plant omega-3’s to a form used by the body. Plant sources include walnuts, soy, flax, and chia seeds.

Next time you shop for that perfect shade of eye shadow, make sure to pick up some fresh produce and salmon, too. (Check Eating Well for tempting recipes.)