Scary Foods to Make Yourself Eat: Dandelion Greens

Originally posted on April 22, 2013 – The Village Green Blog

For the second installment of our series Scary Foods to Make Yourself Eat, we’re venturing into vegetables – debatably an even tougher sell than sardines (read part one about sardines). If you don’t already eat a lot of green vegetables, then you may just want to start by adding dark leafy greens (spinach, romaine, kale, chard, etc.) to your everyday diet. If greens are a staple, then consider incorporating the less common leaf of the dandelion plant.

In the Northeast we primarily know dandelions as those pesky weeds that invade our lawns every spring. Some of us may remember the childhood challenge of blowing all the seed spores off a mature flower with a single breath. But we rarely considered the leaves as an edible green vegetable. Turns out, not only are they edible, they’re quite nutritious.

In this case nutritious comes with a price. These leaves are very bitter. Frankly, that’s why they’re on this list. But in plants, bitter taste often coincides with strong anti-inflammatory properties, supporting the prevention of chronic disease. Dandelion is no exception. A range of phytonutrient compounds have made the root, leaves and flowers of the dandelion plant medicinal staples in every tradition of healing. More notably, dandelion leaves are a strong diuretic and support the liver for optimal detoxification and cleansing, making them a great food to incorporate when you want to refresh and rejuvenate the body (they arrive in spring for a reason). As an excellent source of carotenoids (vitamin A), vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium and iron, they hold their own against more standard leafy greens.

There are many ways to get around the bitter taste and enjoy them as part of your spring diet. Mix some raw chopped dandelion into your salad mix to kick up the flavor, blend them into green smoothies, or add them to soups just before serving. For more great ideas on how to eat dandelion greens, check out this post from Huffington Post

Am I Cleansed Yet?

I’ve never done a cleanse. To be honest, and this may sound silly to many of you, this is something I’m a little ashamed to confess.  I’ve studied detoxification, counseled individuals on their own cleansing decisions and of course, as much as any nutrition student, subjected my body to a barrage of dietary experiments.  While some likely had a detoxifying effect, I felt like I was missing something, having never taken part in a diet plan designed specifically as a “cleanse.”  Unfortunately I can’t say I’m thrilled with my first attempt.

Just so we’re all up to speed, a cleanse or detox diet can be loosely defined as a dietary regimen designed to aid the body in purging built up environmental toxins (pollutants, heavy metals, pesticides, food additives and more).  While this is a natural bodily process (for nerds), the magnitude of toxins to which we are exposed combined with our American diet (heavy on the meat, light on the plants) can leave our livers overwhelmed and under-supported.  Benefits of cleansing may include boosted energy, improved digestion, deeper sleep and clearer brain function (all results I have witnessed in a clinical setting).  However, most of us view them as short term and very productive weight loss diets (also witnessed, but not an approach to weight loss that I endorse).  There are hundreds of commercialized cleanses – think Master Cleanse, Blue Print Cleanse, Fat Flush Plan – many selling books, some accompanying supplement products and others expensive kitchen appliances.  The rules vary widely from strictly scheduled supplement protocols to simple dietary restrictions.

So I’m about one week into my three-week program (inspired by the Whole Living Magazine 2012 Challenge), and after six straight days of eating strictly fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds I find myself wondering, “Am I cleansed yet?”  Given my standard, unrestricted, omnivorous diet, I expected, almost hoped, that I would experience some drastic result after a week of cooking all my own food and going without animal products, grains, beans, sugar, preservatives, additives, caffeine or alcohol.  But to my dismay, I don’t really feel any different.  It’s an ironic frustration, because to wish for a drastic improvement is essentially to wish that either my body is shouldering a large toxic burden or that I have an intolerance to one of the foods I eliminated.  Alternatively, I may just be impatient and making this judgment far too early in the process.  Or I need to try a different cleanse.

Either way, through my reflections this weekend, and as my resolve to complete my program wanes, I’ve drawn a few valuable takeaways.

Cleanse with a purpose!  It can be tough to stay on track.  You’ll need a clear goal and intention to keep yourself motivated, whether it’s to relieve some physical symptom or just reconnect with a healthier lifestyle.  Set your intention before you start, ideally in writing.  If you cannot come up with one, perhaps it’s not the right time to cleanse.

Find the positives.  Turns out, even if it didn’t make me feel superhuman, this week put me back in touch with my kitchen.  Eating only fruits and vegetables forced me to experiment, learn some new techniques and try some new recipes.  I’ve got a fridge full of leftovers and homemade soups to show for it.  That connection was something I had been missing in my life as of late.  For that I’m thankful of this experience.

Anyone have any cleanse experiences they’d like to share?  Please do so!

NOTE: Most cleanse and detox diets are not well researched and commonly incorporate extreme and potentially dangerous practices that may not be optimal for detoxification. Risks may vary from person-to-person depending on health status. I strongly encourage anyone interested in doing a cleanse to do so under the supervision of a knowledgeable licensed nutrition or medical practitioner.

A Simple Grain

My apartment smells amazing right now!  It’s a nice change because ever since I  moved in I’ve been fighting a strong new-carpet smell muddled with the lingering scent of curry spice that I spilled when stocking my cabinet.  Tonight’s aroma is like fresh popped buttery popcorn… the real deal, not the microwave stuff.  But it’s not movie night and I’m not snacking.  I’m making brown rice. Completely plain brown rice.  From scratch.  I’m going to put it in a container in the fridge and keep it there for the rest of the week, or until it’s gone.  I’ll put it in soup or chili with my lunch, maybe use it to beef up a salad for dinner one night or as a start for warm rice cereal at breakfast (one of my favorite uses).

Whole grains (brown rice is one) have taken on a new fame as of late.  The government and mainstream health authorities are endorsing them in our diets, food manufacturers are pumping them into as many products as they can (or at least labeling them as such), and restaurant chefs are featuring them on seasonal menus.  The purported health benefits to our hearts and waistlines are still standing and, whether for fad or function, most of us are getting on board with the trend.  Sadly though, I feel like the masses are still missing out on the whole grain in its true form.  That being, the one in which it is WHOLE!  Sure there are the breakfast cereals that only taste good with chocolate Silk and loaves of bread made of 5, 7 or12 different grains.  But in all of those products the grain has been pulverized into a powder and made into something else.  And that’s if you’re lucky (or smart) and buy something that’s not just masquerading as “whole grain.”

So why doesn’t anyone just cook the grain itself?  They’re cheap, incredibly shelf stable, come in a variety of forms (great article in the WSJ), smell good while cooking (brown rice, anyway) and boast a satisfying texture and intricate nutty flavor.  I figure it must be the cooking part.  Believe it or not, whole grains are incredibly easy to cook.  Not far off from that staple food that feeds college students everywhere and tends to follow learning to boil water.  But we’ve been intimidated and spoiled by packaged products like Near East and Rice-A-Roni.  Even my mother, who has made rice from scratch countless times, still texts me to ask the rice-to-water ratio.  So for her, and those of you have never cooked a whole grain, I’m going to give you the pleasure.  Why not start with a familiar one.  Below is my photographic tutorial and recipe for one of the simplest foods you’ll ever make.

Simple Brown Rice

Disclaimer: While this is written like a recipe, try not to think of it like one. Think of it as instructions for something that is really hard to screw up.  It could come out perfect, or just mediocre, but either way it’ll be edible.  Pasta works the same way.

Ingredients/Utensils: 1 pot with lid, mesh strainer, wooden spoon, 1 cup dry brown rice, 1.5-1.75c water or stock (I like a blend), a bit of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

  1. Wash the rice.
  2. Heat the oil (medium heat)
  3. Add the rice, stir. Stop when it starts to give off apleasant nutty aroma. This brings out a lot of natural flavor in the rice.
  4. Pour in the water/stock and salt.
  5. Bring to boil.
  6. Turn to low and cover
  7. 45 minutes (or so) – DO NOT DISTURB (lest you want a mushy grain)
  8. Check when it’s done. Tilt the pot carefully… any liquid left?  When the answer is no remove from heat and rest 10 minutes to cool.
  9. Taste a bite. Serve. Enjoy. Store.

This entry was written as a part of the Food Network’s Health Eats blog and their Healthy Every Week Challenge.

Be a “Breakfast Eater”

I’m a breakfast eater.  No doubt.  Other than exercise, there’s little I’m willing to do in the morning before I eat.  Wherever I wake, at home or traveling, I rarely walk out the door without taking in some form of nourishment.  Even when the destination is a restaurant for brunch, I’ll still eat something first.  A handful of nuts, an apple or banana… something!

So in the colloquial sense of the phrase, I am the epitome of a “breakfast eater.”  But to be honest, I don’t really like that phrase.  As a nutritionist I’m of the opinion that there are no “breakfast eaters” and “non-breakfast eaters.”  Despite hearing the claim almost daily from clients and friends – it usually sounds something like “I’m just not a breakfast eater.  Never have been.” – I choose not to accept that some people are genetically averse to breakfast eating.  Physiologically our bodies all work pretty much the same.  And although many (let’s be honest, most) dietary concepts still sit in the column of debated theories, the value of daily breakfast sits right under the ‘health value of whole fruits and vegetables’ in the column cautiously labeled “nearly fact!”

Your body runs on fuel burned from food.  Breakfast provides the day’s first fill-up. Evolutionarily we have developed ways to get up and go without fuel, but the hormonal stress response triggered by that habit (a preparation for a day without food) doesn’t exactly jive in today’s world.  Not unless you enjoy that obstructed view of your feet.  Food in the morning serves to wake your body up.  It aligns your hormonal patterns for the day, starts your metabolism and tells it, rightly so, that you’ll be eating today.  It has a positive influence on mood, energy levels and cognitive function while contributing to the achievement and maintenance of a healthy body weight.

So how do so many of us end up in a place where we never eat breakfast and feel so confident that we don’t need it?

There may be quite a few reasons.  I think many of them start with caffeine, stress and time coupled with the impressive resilience and adaptability of the human body.

So if you’re a “non-breakfast eater” ready to concede that perhaps a morning meal could benefit your health, the New Year is a great time to start!  Here are a few tips to get you thinking:

  • Demote the caffeine.  Coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks… none of them make a particularly ideal breakfast.  (Soda and energy drinks don’t make an ideal anything!)  If your breakfast is coffee, the beep on the automatic brewer serves as your alarm clock, insist on this ONE thing.  You will EAT SOMETHING before your first cup!  Caffeine can be an appetite suppressant, often contributing to that “not hungry in the morning” complaint.
  • Start small. If a lack of desire for food in the morning is part of your problem, try opting for just a few bites of something.  A half of a piece of fruit, a handful of almonds or a single hardboiled egg.  Try choosing something you love to eat, even if it’s not typical breakfast fare.  Before long you won’t believe how you ever did without it.
  • Time is of the essence. Yes I know.  But frustratingly, there is always time if you make it.  And yet, many breakfasts don’t even require that much effort.  Yogurt comes prepackaged in little cups with easy to remove tin-foil tops.  Whole grain toast toasts with the push of a button (or lever).  And it can’t take longer to spread some almond butter than to pour the hazelnut creamer.

Breakfast rule of thumb:  It is a meal like any other.  It should include a balance of protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat.  Not all or none of either.

This entry was written in participation with the Food Networks Healthy Eats blog and their Healthy Every Week Challenge for the month of January.  Join in and stay tuned to JBR Nutrition for more insights to optimal health.

We’re All Grown-Ups Here

We’re all grown-ups here. Presumably. So let’s eat like grown-ups!

A year into my life as a nutritionist, having counseled individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds all over the country, I’ve had to deal with a certain issue far more frequently than I initially imagined. The issue is that of food preference – our tastes. Affinities toward some foods, aversions to others. They’re shaped by evolution, genetics, human experience… and largely by our mothers. (Sorry Mom) Without a doubt, there’s some interesting science behind these tendencies, shedding light on our primal desires for sugar and fat or how your friend swears he tastes “barnyard” in the Bordeaux you’re sharing, which you think tastes like wine. My friend Marissa provides a compelling discussion of the scientific angle in her blog Changing Our Palate. I’d like to take a look from a different perspective. One from which we can all weigh-in.

So here’s the question:

When a person is working on making dietary changes to improve health, to what extent is it acceptable for limited food preferences to get in the way of making good choices?

To cut the question down even further, let’s focus on one especially stubborn food group – fruits and vegetables. Ok, vegetables. Easily the most nutrient dense food we have available to us. Yes, we all know someone who will live disease-free to age ninety-five on meat and potatoes, but that person is a rarity. Most nutritionists would agree that a day’s intake is lacking without some form of green vegetable present. And of course, these are the most difficult foods to get people to eat.

For the person who knows vegetables as spaghetti sauce, French fries and sandwich toppings, what is the answer to our question? Do these severely limited food preferences draw an immovable boundary around what this person will eat? Or can we expect an individual to make some sacrifice here, as grown-ups must do from time to time? To recognize the importance of food for optimizing health and teach oneself to eat (and maybe even like) those things that are undeniably good for us. Some may say it depends on the situation. Just how much of a jam is this person in from a health perspective? Sadly, that’s how many of us think, and act, subconsciously of course, when it comes to taking the needed steps to improve health. Prescribe me a Statin drug for high cholesterol and I might cut down my red meat consumption. Put me through quadruple bypass surgery and I’ll eat all the kale at the farmers market!

I think I’m getting my point across here, and perhaps a little too strongly. I’m beginning to realize that this was somewhat of a sensitive selection.

The point is, changing dietary habits for good is inevitably a learning and growing process. When we go to a nutritionist, we must be prepared to stretch ourselves, to try new things and to expand food choices beyond what they were before. Hell, if “what they were before” was just fine, you wouldn’t be there in the first place. Sure we can ask to keep things within our limits. Part of the job of a nutritionist is to know food and to help an individual find healthy ways of eating and living that work specifically for that person. But the other part of our job is to teach. So come ready to learn… and eat… like a grown-up.

Don’t think I haven’t forgotten that invite.  Let-go your inhibitions and weigh-in.  If you’re so inclined, share your thoughts in the comments.

A Science of Imperfection

In life, I’m a perfectionist.  There it is!  First sentence.  No secrets.  I have a frustrating compulsion to do everything exactly the right way, effectively and successfully… on the first try!  While this compulsion was easily stoked by my success in high school math, I’ve come to realize that it may not be compatible with real life.

When I entered the world of nutrition I quickly learned that nothing in this field is perfect… not on the first try, and often not the third or fourth.  Science in general may be designed to elicit perfection, but anyone in the field knows that this goal is rarely achieved.  Those of us not in the field see this in the constantly wavering message on what we should and should not eat. (It’s Tuesday… eggs are healthy again)  Needless to say, most nutrition and diet information up to this point (nutrition is still a young science) is really just a well, or not so well, researched guess at perfection.  We must confront the fact that there is no perfect diet, no perfect food, no vitamin, herb, drug or supplement that will serve as the magic bullet and answer all of our health and wellness woes.

Despite my admitted perfectionist tendencies, this nature of imperfection actually stands behind everything I believe and practice in the world of nutrition and wellness.  There is not one perfect approach that works for everyone.  We are all a little different.  Thus, we all need something a little different.  I think this concept can be applied to just about anything, but in nutrition we call it biodiversity.  While we may share 99.9% of our genetic code, that 0.1% brings a significant amount of variability, wouldn’t you say?  Not to mention the myriad of differences in our lives as individuals: we work different jobs, live in different cities, regions and climates, engage in different forms and levels of physical activity, were raised by different families and born of different mothers – some of whom played us classical music in the womb, while others smoked cigarettes.  All of these things can have a strong impact on the foods that will make up our “perfect” diet.

So yes, I’m a nutritionist, who is also a perfectionist, confessing to the imperfection of the field of nutrition at the very same moment that I introduce to you my blog on the topic.  But I don’t intend for this blog to tell you right from wrong or precisely what you should eat.  Fact is, while I have some ideas, I don’t really know what you should eat.  Rather, I hope to provide some guidance that will help you find your own way to dietary and lifestyle perfection.  I will share insights from my personal quest for nutritional alchemy as well as my pursuits to lead clients along this path.  There will be talk of whole foods (not the store)… (well maybe the store too), cooking, supplements, prescription drugs, physical fitness, weight management, nutrition in functional medicine and the struggles of lifestyle and behavior change.  I will likely editorialize a bit (because it’s boring otherwise, for both of us) and I may employ a few interesting metaphors to keep things worldly.

Given the dynamic and constantly evolving environment in which we live, I’ll probably never achieve perfection.  But perfectionists rarely do right?  I hope you’ll join me.