A Little Bit of Everything?

Most people agree that we need to eat a balanced diet. However, the interpretations of this principle vary widely.

Popular wisdom says that we should have a balanced diet: a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. This seems to be a safe approach and we do agree with this wise principle, especially in light of our body’s complexity and the lack of a definitive scientific answer concerning the perfect diet.

But from a practical point of view, what does “a little bit of everything” mean? A little bit from each aisle of the supermarket?

IMG_0275

If we still led the hunter-gatherers’ life, the question wouldn’t arise: we’d eat what we can find in nature, and we’d be fine. Our bodies have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to do just that. In comparison, agriculture is a very recent development (10,000 years).

Agriculture has made available an abundance of unnatural new foods:
– Unnatural because selective breeding creates crops that evolve faster than our metabolism.
– Unnatural also in the proportions of the macronutrients offered: the advent of agriculture mostly meant “grains” and we’ve been eating an excessive proportion of our diet as cereals and starches since then. While grains made civilization possible by feeding large populations, it was also the first step in consuming food that our body isn’t built for. Maybe we’ll adapt to it in a few hundred thousand years, but, for the time being, our bodies still think we are hunter-gatherers.

fish sticksThe problem is made more acute by the food industry: understandably, companies want you to buy what’s profitable for them, not what’s good for you. Sfishhopping habits, lack of time, shear volume of the offering, constant advertising disguised as science,  all contribute to make it hard for people to distinguish real food from junk. How many kids think of “fish” (as food, not as in The Little Mermaid) as a rectangle?

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In the modern supermarket, without more precise guidance than “Eat a Little Bit of Everything” we are doomed.

Of course, most things found in the supermarket are man-made: apart from some rare wild-caught fish or game, and wild fruit (mostly berries), vegetal and animal products are grown or bred. The fruits available today are much bigger and sweeter than the original ones.

We don’t suggest that we go back to prehistorical lifestyles. But if we want to be healthy, it is important to look for fresh ingredients that received as little processing as possible, and try to eat food that is closest to what exists in nature, closest to:

Pulled from the ground,
Cut from the flesh,
Plucked from the plant.


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Asparagus and Leek Soup

Spring is just around the corner, well at least in California. (In Minnesota maybe less so.) In any case, get ready to enjoy fresh asparagus, one of the many gifts of the season.

This soup is an opportunity to enjoy the first of the young spring asparagus. Choose medium-sized asparagus (neither pencil sized nor too large) and look for tips that are tight and free from flowering.

Although you can serve the soup “as is,” the cream garnish brings valuable dairy fats.


Asparagus, in addition to being a good source of fiber, has one of the most complete spectrums among vegetables both for amino acids and elements. Asparagine, a fairly common amino acid with a distinctive smell, is rarely found in such abundance as in the asparagus. It is a good thing to have because it is used by our body to make a variety of other amino acids.

For these reasons, asparagus should be a staple in our diet, not an exotic food.


Leeks, being sulphur donors, like all the members of the allium family, are good for the immune system, joints and cartilage. They have a very broad spectrum of essential amino acids (which is rare for vegetables), extremely low glycemic load and glycemic index, and some anti-inflammatory properties.


Efficiency, Completeness, Spectrum, Quality: all these words refer to the same notion: how many key nutrients are present in a given food? 

Protein – A “complete” or “efficient” protein source contains all 9 essential amino acids, in proportions suitable for our body: excess in any particular amino acid results in imbalance. Although our body can adjust within a certain range, it cannot deal with overwhelming imbalance. By eating a variety of proteins, we avoid stressing our body’s regulation capability. 

 Over-emphasizing “completeness” may lead to problems, though. Restricting your choice of proteins to the “efficient” ones narrows your options and impoverishes your diet.

Eating a large variety of proteins is a better way to take care of efficiency!

Fat – Fat quality is determined by the quality of its source: fat is not an isolated molecule, it comes within a whole matrix of other ingredients, and those must be healthy too. Healthy fats start with healthy animals and healthy plants.

Micronutrients and elements that have a physiological function in our body are too many to count. If you eat a restricted diet, you will forgo many healthy nutrients.


Serves 6

  • 2 medium leeks (white to light-green part only)
  • 2 lb medium-sized asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 cups chicken stock

For the citrus cream (optional):

  • 1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
  • ½ cup crème fraîche
  • Zest and juice of one lemon

Continue reading “Asparagus and Leek Soup”

Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients

We are used to think of our food in terms of its macronutrient composition: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Nowadays, it would make a lot more sense to think in terms of micronutrients, including, but not limited to, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes.

There are many ways to classify food. The good old macronutrient approach is primarily linked with energy production: just anybody will tell you that you need to eat carbs to have energy (never mind that it conflicts with the widespread knowledge that fat is very calorie-dense, with almost twice the calories of protein or carbs for the same weight).

This energy-oriented approach makes sense if you consider that for a long time the main concern of humankind was survival and getting enough calories was a matter or life and death.

_DSC0927 corrThe micronutrient approach started with the discovery of vitamins. While this scientific breakthrough opened new horizons in nutrition, it also created the enduring myth that sugar equals vitamins, because fruits were the first foods to be associated with vitamins.

Since then we have discovered that, in fact, many vegetables are richer in vitamins than fruit.

Continue reading “Macronutrients vs. Micronutrients”

“CAULI-FLOUR” – Trader Joe’s stole my idea (and I’m not even angry).

Grated cauliflower is now available in several stores. This is great news overall, with some reservations.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports on the price hike and possible shortage of cauliflower due to the crucifer’s increased popularity. Not a good thing in the immediate future, but an encouraging trend health wise: its new-found popularity can only help cauliflower become more readily available and affordable in the future.

♦ ♦ ♦

And the future is already here!

Cauliflower crust aficionados will be happy to learn that they can buy ready-grated cauliflower at Trader Joe’s: at first it lived in the frozen section, but now “riced” cauliflower is also available in the fresh produce aisle. Green Giant is selling its own version too, and by the time this post is published, I am confident that there will be more offerings.

Cauliflower - white
Good old cauliflower – at Safeway about $4 / lb

Green Giant Cauliflower Crumbles - $3.49 / 16 oz
Green Giant Cauliflower Crumbles – $3.49 / 16 oz

Organic Trader Joe's riced cauliflower - $1.99 / 12 oz
Organic Trader Joe’s riced cauliflower – $1.99 / 12 oz

So how does packaged cauliflower compare to the real thing? Let’s take a look, taking into account:

1 – Practicality – YES, YES, YES!
Even though it’s not difficult to shred cauliflower, the operation can be messy or painful (have you ever grated your knuckles?). Grating adds one step to a process that is already a little complicated. So if you don’t have infinite amounts of time, riced cauliflower is definitely worth it.

2 – Nutritional value – looks OK, but read the fine print.

Stems vs. florets
Don’t discard the stems: they possess as much nutritional value as the florets. The stems contain more chloroplasts and the associated chlorophyll and carotenoids, they also have more fiber. The maturation of nutrients in the stem and in the floret are different and complement each other.

It doesn’t look like much nutrition can be lost in the process of grating. In fact, one advantage is that the stems are probably blended together with the florets, which has more nutritional value than eating the florets alone.

However, Green Giant proudly boasts that its product “can be steamed in its pack” (always scary) and uses a “patent pending process to extend shelf life” (I don’t know about you, but this makes my hair stand on end): Additives are a problem in all packaged foods; under certain conditions, they don’t have to be listed with the ingredients. My daughter is not allergic to fresh carrots, yet she has had serious allergic reactions to packaged carrots, although the only ingredient listed was “carrots.”

We need to know a little more about the industrial processes involved in bringing the product to market. Real food with the least possible processing is always preferable; packaged cauliflower may be an acceptable alternative, if produced in a reasonable manner.

3 – Price
A quick survey doesn’t reveals huge price differences. But note that the price of fresh cauliflower fluctuates a lot these days.

In any case, compared with a box of cereals (roughly $4/lb), cauliflower is well worth it, no matter under what form you buy it.


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What’s Wrong With the Food Pyramid

The food pyramid never reflected the scientific knowledge of the time. It may have started life with good intentions, but bad influence led it astray.

The once ubiquitous food pyramid has now been replaced by my MyPlate, but it doesn’t hurt to examine it one more time to understand where we came from in terms of food recommendations.

For a better understanding of how the food pyramid came to be, a great read is Denise Minger’s Death by Food Pyramid. In spite of its funny, not-so-subtle title, it is a very serious investigation of the forces that conspired to create the monster.

On the topic, see also Marion Nestle’s Food Politics. Marion Nestle was the editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.

In this post, we’ll just comment on the result:

Food pyramid

The pyramid implies that starches (grain, cereals, bread) should constitute the basis of our food. This might have been true at the dawn of mankind, when calories were scarce. Agriculture and grains allowed large populations to be fed, and with the division of labor came the arts, politics, war, in short, civilization. But when consumed on top of everything else we eat now, grains become a liability: our body is not equipped to deal with the large amounts of starch and sugar that are effortlessly available nowadays.

The popular belief is that starches are needed for energy. This is plainly not true (but this will require a separate blog post to itself).

Fats appear at the very top of the pyramid: the proportion is not so bad (after all, fats are very dense nutritionally, and a little bit goes a long way), but it instills an unnecessary fear of fats: fat plays an important role in our body, we need fat for our brain, membranes and more.

The popular belief is that eating fat makes you fat. This is also false. (Look for a future post on the subject.)

ERFOE Food pyramid
A non-USDA-sponsored food pyramid (still not ideal, but better).

The rest of the pyramid is more or less OK. We could argue that fruits are not really necessary since you get more vitamins and micronutrients from non-starchy colorful vegetables than from fruit, but this is in the noise level compared to the rest. So in fact, the food pyramid would not be so bad if we just cut off its bottom.

MyPlate

The “MyPlate” recommendation is a slight improvement over the food pyramid. But:

myplate

  • Even though it has reduced the recommended proportion of grains, it still implies that grains are a basic food group.
  • We don’t agree that grains are a food group, or that fruits are necessary at all.
  • The proportion of proteins in “Myplate” seems reasonable, but the fats are completely missing from the picture.
  • In our mind, dairy is not necessarily a glass of milk (as implied by the drawing), and not an add on: it is part of the protein and fats.

Grains are not a basic food group!
The indispensable, basic macronutrients are:
– Proteins
– Fats and
– Carbohydrates.

Cereals, starches and grains are not a separate food group: they are mostly carbohydrates. Eating a balanced diet doesn’t imply that you must include a proportion of starches and grains. Eating colorful, nutrient-dense vegetables will bring a fairly large amount of carbohydrates and fiber.

The ERFOE Ideal Plate

ideal plate

The plate that we advocate consists of:

 1/4 Proteins
 3/4 Colorful vegetables
Fats
No sugars or starches or cereal

This “ideal plate” is designed to provide enough micronutrients and macronutrients. Proteins can be animal or vegetal. They include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds.

It is assumed that vegetables are cooked or seasoned with fats. Protein generally comes with built-in fat. Fat is important and greatly contributes to satiety: in the vegetable portion of your plate, half of the calories might come from fat (this is, however, not much in volume).


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Cauliflower Crust Savory Pies

This cauliflower preparation can serve as a crust substitute in many savory pies. In fact, it does such a good job that it’s hard to remember the crust is not made of flour. (And it is probably single-handedly responsible for the much feared cauliflower shortage recently mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.)

Although a far cry from the real Neapolitan thing, this method yields a reasonably crunchy crust, if you resist the temptation to pile the topping on too thick.

However, this is probably not the best way to eat cauliflower. By squeezing the water out, we end up with a higher concentration of starches: after all, what makes cauliflower a low-starch food is that it is made of 94% water (whereas a potato is only 78% water). Another undesirable effect is that nutrients escape when squeezing the water out. Still, for nutrients and fiber, this is a lot better than wheat flour.

For a 10” crust, serves 4 (only!)

  • 4 cups grated cauliflower florets (1 medium head)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 oz shredded Swiss cheese
  • 1 tablespoon oil

Flamenkuchen topping (forgive me, Jean):

  • 4 oz onion, minced
  • 3 oz bacon, cut into matchsticks
  • 4 tablespoons sour cream

Pizza topping example (forgive me, Roberto):

  • Fresh tomato slices
  • Tomato paste
  • Mozzarella
  • Olives
  • Anchovies

Continue reading “Cauliflower Crust Savory Pies”

Don’t Eat Cauliflower to Lose Weight!

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (Feb.2, 2016) is calling attention to the astonishing possibility of a cauliflower shortage. According to the article, cauliflower has become very popular in the U.S. lately: this is mainly because many people who cut carbohydrates in an effort to lose weight are turning to cauliflower as a low-carb substitute to starchy foods.

To which I say:
Don’t eat cauliflower to lose weight!
Eat cauliflower because:

Cauliflower - orange

  • It is replete with nutrients. As a member of the cruciferous family, it is rich in sulphoraphanes, which have many beneficial properties: in particular they protect against UV radiation, contribute to joint health and help the immune system fight cancer.

But don’t focus on any single micronutrient in your food: just eat real food such as (but not limited to) cauliflower and know that it brings you many of the micronutrients that your body needs to thrive!

Cauliflower - green

  • Yes, cauliflower has a low starch/sugar contents. Consuming less starch will probably result in weight loss for those who need it: starch and sugar are converted into body fat, and the insulin resulting from high blood sugar tells your metabolism to go into “storage” mode.

Sugar and starches are very nefarious to your body in many other ways. So the benefits of replacing starchy foods by non-starchy vegetables go way beyond weight loss.

  • Cauliflower tastes great and is, in fact, very versatile. (See recipe in upcoming post.) In comes in several colors that bring different nutrients to your body. So try them all!

And if indeed, one head of cauliflower seems expensive, think of how much more nutrition it brings compared to those boxes of cereals that people routinely buy.

Chestnut Soup

This simple, hearty soup makes a good fall or winter starter. Chestnuts used to be standard fare in the French countryside, most of the time cooked in milk for supper. The soup is extremely easy to prepare with peeled, pre-cooked chestnuts. It is quite an ordeal to make it with whole raw chestnuts, though!

Serves 6

  • 1 onion
  • 3 oz bacon
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon Brandy
  • 1 lb peeled, pre-cooked chestnuts
  • 1 qt broth
  • Crème fraîche or sour cream

Continue reading “Chestnut Soup”

Chestnut Season is too short!

Chestnuts belong to the “nuts and seeds” family, but contrary to most edible nuts, they contain almost no fat. (This, by the way, is not a virtue: our body needs fats.) The simple, hearty soup presented here is everybody’s favorite and makes a good fall or winter starter.

 

Fall is good! If only because this is the time when Trader Joe’s carries pre-cooked, vacuum packed chestnuts. Look for them in the vegetable section of the store and make sure to load up when you find them, because they will disappear too soon.

Pre-cooked chestnuts keep for a long time, and can be frozen with no loss of flavor or texture.

(!$#@!) Unfortunately, because it took me so long to get started with this blog, chestnuts are no longer available at Trader Joe’s. Draeger’s carries them year long, at a premium of course. I’ve been told that Costco has them too. Asian supermarkets sell roasted-peeled chestnut, but I haven’t tested them yet.

Chestnuts belong to the “nut and seed” family, but contrary to most edible nuts, they contain almost no fat. This, by the way, is not a virtue: our body needs fats of all kinds in order to be healthy.
For a given weight, they are no starchier than other nuts but you tend to eat more of them. They are gluten free. But beware if you treat them as a vegetable: their starch content is similar to that of starchy foods like potato, sweet potato or plantain.
Their nutritional profile is not great but they make a nice treat on a cold winter day, especially if you’re planning on going out to chop wood.