Eating and Drinking 101: The very, VERY basics.

Regardless of WHAT you put in your mouth, the circumstances in which you eat have a huge effect on the goodness you can extract from your food. I went to a really interesting seminar this week, and the presenter reminded us that the digestive system starts in the brain, and without the correct conditions around our consumption of food, our poor guts are always going to be playing catch-up.

Mmmmm, Mexican food. Just thinking about it is triggering all sorts of action in your intestines.

This all sounds a bit woo, although we do have the very obvious example of Pavlov’s dog, who not only started to drool at the sight of food, but also when he hung out with the technician who brought the food, and then later at the sound of a bell that also rang while he ate. In humans, it’s been discovered that significant amounts of our pancreatic juices, and the enzymes that break down food in our small intestine are released simply by THINKING about food.

A lovely lollipop lady gives Hector a treat every day so he now drools at the sight of anyone in a high-vis jacket, thereby proving Pavlov’s point.

As ever, the big enemy to this process is stress, but also a general lack of focus on what we are doing when we eat. In stress, of course our blood and body functions are directed to support our muscles and brain so that we can run away from that sabre-tooth tiger that’s chasing us, thus bringing our digestive systems to a grinding halt (perhaps following a quick pit-stop behind a bush). Mindless eating, when we are concentrating on something else, like work emails, Game of Thrones or desperate attempts to teach children table manners, might not have such a detrimental effect, but does mean that the actual substances and processes that break down and digest our food are being hamstrung. It also leads to greater food intake, often of the crap variety…

There is huge room for me to improve with this stuff. Although I do cook the vast majority of my own food, which sets things up well, it goes rapidly downhill from there. The breakfast smoothie is chugged as I wrangle the junior members of the household out the door, lunch is usually in front of my laptop, and dinner en famille is not quite the joyous time of togetherness that it’s made out to be.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way….

With these environmental factors running in the background, there are another couple of tweaks to our eating habits that can make a huge difference, like the timing of meals, being hydrated, and chewing. So what might a list of the important things to focus on look like?

  1. Have a routine around mealtimes that makes food the focus. Much in the manner of Pavlov’s dog, our brains will recognise rituals around mealtimes and prime our bodies to get ready for some chow. This might involve cooking the meal; for kids it might mean setting the table, switching off the tv and sitting in a certain place. By excluding other distractions at this time hopefully we’ll be lining our digestive processes up for maximum effectiveness.

    Are you a routine-type of person?
  2. Take a moment to think about what you are about to eat. Even if it’s not super-tasty, if you’re hungry, hopefully you can muster some enthusiasm just for the fact that you are going to have some food. Who knows, after a few days of doing this, you might find yourself changing your eating habits so you feel more positive about your meals? There’s a good article about mindful eating here. (I like his suggestion of occasionally having 5 minutes of silence at the start of a family meal – i.e. a small period of respite from the usual bickering and critiques of the menu…).
  3. Chew your food really well. As well as the obvious benefits of chopping food up and increasing the surface area for stomach acid, enzymes and bile to work their magic and release the nutrients from your food, the basic act of chewing triggers hormones that control appetite, hunger and feelings of fullness. For people who experience discomfort after meals, making sure that they take time to chew can be a great starting point.

    Get those jaws ready for a workout.
  4. Have clearly defined mealtimes and aim for at least a 12 hour fast in every 24 hours. Processing food is a hugely energy-intensive process for your body and recent research points to the gut benefiting from windows in the day without food so that a wave-like muscular process called the ‘migrating motor complex’ can sweep through the intestines and get rid of anything that’s hanging about. Also, cells in the gut are turned over every 2-4 days, but this regeneration can’t happen if there is a constant input of food to be digested.The idea of ‘time restricted feeding’ (a term I hate because it makes us sound like lab rats) is growing in popularity as it seems to have positive effects on blood sugar balance and the microbiome. Building in a 12 hour window without food isn’t too difficult if you stop eating at 7pm. Now that I’ve been experimenting with this habit for about 3 weeks (Sunday to Thursday only!), I’ve found that I need to add more food to my evening meal to make it work, but once in the swing of it, it hasn’t been as difficult as I expected.
  5. Drink at least 2 litres of water each day – but don’t drink loads of water with meals! We all know the importance of water to good health (but here’s a nice refresher), and when we think about the digestive system, the importance of hydration to prevent constipation is probably the biggest issue. We also need water to make good quality mucous, which, although not really a topic of polite conversation, is vital to our digestive health; protecting tissue, and providing a lovely home for our friendly bacteria. The problem with drinking lots of water with meals is simply that it dilutes the power of stomach acid, reducing its capacity to break down proteins and kill pathogens. There are various ‘rules’ about what drinks count as water towards your daily target, but basically, if your pee is a pale, strawlike colour in the daytime you’re getting it right.

    If water au naturel is too boring, lemon, ginger, or cucumber might make it less so.

My big takeaway from this topic is to pay more attention to food as I eat it and to make mealtimes more fun for everybody. If anyone has any good ideas for this, please hit me with them. We do occasionally go round the table with a ‘Best thing, Worst thing’ review of the day as a conversation starter, but it usually degenerates into a power struggle over who gets to go last (sigh). I also get a bit hung up about table manners – not to any great standard, I just thought that by this age the kids wouldn’t still want to eat as if raised by wolves. Maybe my new mantra just needs to be to unclench and enjoy…

Recipe:

Roasted Cauliflower steaks with Chimichurri Sauce.
This is a gorgeous dish – I serve it with sweet potato wedges plus a big handful of leaves with feta sprinkled on top and it is so good. The chimichurri sauce comes from Argentina and is totally addictive (and very garlicky!). Skip the feta and it’s gluten free, dairy-free and vegan!

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks
Ingredients:

  • 1 head of cauliflower sliced through the core to make chunky slices about 1 inch thick. If you’re lucky you can get about 3 slices per cauliflower plus some trimmings from the outside.
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice.
  • 2 crushed garlic cloves.
  • Pinch of chilli flakes.
  • Salt and pepper.

Method:

  1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and lay the cauliflower on the sheet.
  3. Mix all of the non-cauliflower ingredients together and generously brush the mixture on top of the cauliflower.
  4. Roast the cauliflower for 20 mins on each side, brushing the marinade on again when you turn the steaks over.

Chimichurri Sauce
Ingredients

  • 1 small supermarket pack of coriander (around 25g) chopped (include the stalks).
  • 1 supermarket pack of parsley (usually around 25g) chopped (leaves only).
  • 2 cloves of crushed garlic.
  • 125ml or ½ a cup of good quality olive oil.
  • 1 and ½ tbsp of red wine vinegar.
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, or 2 tablespoons of fresh.
  • 1 finely chopped shallot (you can use finely chopped spring onions at a push).
  • A pinch of chilli flakes (or more to taste).
  • Pinch or two of salt and a good grind of black pepper.

Method:

Mix all ingredients together. If you like things to be neat, make sure that the herbs are chopped finely, but if you are happy with the rustic look, you don’t need to be too fussy.

Book Recommendation:

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners by Margaret Visser. I read this book years ago and it is totally fascinating with loads of examples, anecdotes and social history. Read it before the festive season and you’ll get even more out of your Christmas dinner.

Seasonal adjustments

As the Scottish winter draws in, the days get short and the cold sets in, I’ve noticed that my usual food routine hasn’t been working so well. So to address this, and a massive dip in my energy levels which coincided with the clocks changing (plus a fantastic and beertastic minibreak in Berlin…) I’ve had to make a few adjustments to get things back on track. I’ve also taken the opportunity to focus on a few foods, herbs and habits that can really support wellbeing at this time of year.

Absolutely not salad weather…
  1. Replace cold and raw vegetables with warm and cooked ones. This is so obvious, but having extolled the virtues of my daily salad bowl, I found myself sitting at the table with zero desire to eat one. In traditional chinese medicine, raw vegetables are seen as very cold and damp, and at this time of year, these are the characteristics that can turn you off them. So, in order to get your 8 portions of vegetables a day, it’s time to turn to soups, big trays of roasted veggies, using seasonal greens to make pesto or wilting them into some miso soup. I’m not always great at batch cooking, but do tend to make more of an effort at this time of year.

    A perfect winter lunch.
  2. Think about Vitamin D levels. In the UK, between October and March, even if you sit in the sun, the UVB rays that we need to make vitamin D, are not strong enough to do this. The NHS recommends that all children under the age of 5 take supplemental Vitamin D and suggests that adults should also do this through the winter months. There is a huge range of supplements available, with sprays  and drops a great option for little ones who don’t like taking tablets, and also those combined with complementary nutrients like Vitamin K. Vitamin D is such an important nutrient, not just for our bones, but also our immune system, our metabolism and cardiovascular health so keeping levels optimal can make a huge difference to how you feel.

    Sunshine; it’s in short supply round here.

3. Make the most of mushrooms. As they are in season just now, you can get hold of lovely wild mushrooms, but even standard supermarket white cups have a raft of health benefits due to their mineral, antioxidant and fibre content, and their positive effects on the immune system – which needs all the help it can get as the cold and flu season approaches. Fittingly, to get the maximum benefit from mushrooms they need to be cooked, and their amazing umami flavour is of course brilliant in casseroles, stews and soups. In order to get them past my children, I have taken to blitzing them in the food processor before adding them to whatever I’m cooking – they haven’t noticed. I’ve also started experimenting more with dried mushrooms like shiitake which I love because they just sit around until you are ready to use them.

Don’t underestimate the power of fungi.

4. Warm with herbs. If you think about the sort of flavours associated with Christmas, like cinnamon and ginger, it’s quite clear that these have a seasonal relevance. (By the way, the latin name for ginger is Zingiber officinale – how great is that? I sense a little ginger kitten in my future called Zingy….). As well as ginger and cinnamon; black pepper, garlic and cardamom all share that lovely warming effect. Fresh ginger tea, in which you just grate and steep the root in hot water is a simple way to get it on board. A great side effect of many of these herbs is that they have a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the body, and cinnamon is also known to increase our sensitivity to insulin – so if you must have apple pie, give it a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.

5. Be kind to yourself. I find it much harder to get up and go in the winter, which I think is normal, so am trying to build in a bit more time for sleep, for taking lovely Epsom salt baths, and for a bit of gentle decluttering and fluffing about the house. When the sun does shine though, it’s great to get into it and it’s thought that a bit of regular daylight through winter can help to stave off the winter blues. If you can do this with friends and family, even better!

Make like a snow monkey and enjoy lots of lovely warm baths. Add epsom salts to get your magnesium in.

Recipe:

Bone Broth.
There are lots of people who roll their eyes at the mention of bone broth (like the Angry Chef – entertaining, but I totally disagree with him on many fronts) because it’s such a staple of wellness bloggers and sounds like a total faff. My opinion is that it is not just a new term for ‘stock’, that it is absolutely worth making, and that personally, as I have a cup, I can just feel it doing me good. The reason for people raving about it is that the long cooking and the addition of apple cider vinegar to break down the bones, releases lots of nutrients into the broth, including easy-to-absorb minerals and supportive substances like gelatin and glutamine. These have great healing properties for the gut wall. Again, if you think back to old traditions, giving chicken soup as a healing food is common to loads of cultures around the world and research has confirmed it’s health benefits.

First, choose your saucepan.

At this time of year, it’s such a handy ingredient to make soups and great tasting dishes from. I wouldn’t suggest making it from non-organic bones though, and if you don’t have organic bones handy (I usually freeze chicken carcasses after each roast and then make a massive pot of broth with 2 or 3 of them), you can get them via mail order, and the supplier that I tend to use is Coombe Farm Organic. If you have a slow cooker, you might want to use it as you can leave it cooking overnight, also, pressure cookers are fabulous as they reduce the cooking time significantly. 

Ingredients

  • Bones – either chicken carcasses, or beef or lamb bones.
  • 2 tbsp of apple cider vinegar
  • 1 onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 stick celery
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 6 peppercorns or a good grind of black pepper
  • Bay leaf if handy
  • Water to cover the bones

Method.

  1. Add the bones to the pan. If you are using beef or lamb bones, brown them in the oven first.
  2. Cover the bones with water and add 2 tablespoons of apple-cider vinegar. Leave to sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Add all of the other ingredients to the pan and bring to the boil.
  4. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 12 hours at least. If using a pressure cooker, cut the time to 3 hours, and if using a slow cooker, use the ‘high’ setting for up to 24 hours. If using a normal hob, as per the instructions from the doyennes of bone broth, the Helmsley sisters,  ‘when you’re home and in the kitchen, bring it to the boil and reduce to a slow simmer. When you need to go out or to bed, just turn it off and let it cool without lifting the lid. Tell people not to take a peek! This means you have a heat seal and keeps bacteria out until you resume cooking it. This works in a cool kitchen, out of direct sunlight. Don’t leave it for more than 8 hours between simmers. Complete this process within 24 hours.’
  5. Let the broth cool, and strain into containers. It freezes well and will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days, or, if there is a good unbroken seal of fat on the top of it, for up to 1 week. I am generally paranoid about it going off after all of the love and affection that has gone into making it so I just keep what I will use over a couple of days in the fridge and then freeze the rest.
  6. Enjoy! Add salt to taste – you can have a mug before your meal, or before bed, or use as a base that will make any soup or stew taste brilliant.

Book Recommendation:

Super Herbs by Rachel Landon.  Thanks to Dee who flagged up this new arrival in the library! I’ve been reading through it and the information is accessible but with plenty of depth and the recipes for foods, medicines, lotions and potions really make you want to produce them. Just for fun, I’ve included the recipe for a ‘Skin Clarifying Face Mask below – I am frankly terrified of trying it as have visions of walking about with a golden yellow face for a week, but she assures us that the turmeric will come off with olive oil on a cotton pad… go on, you try first…

Skin Clarifying Face Mask – Turmeric is high in antioxidants and helps to clarify and cleanse the skin, leaving it bright, smooth and even.

  • 1 dessertspoon of good quality honey
  • 1 dessertspoon of natural organic yoghurt
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric

Mix ingredients together and apply a good layer to your face, avoiding your eyes.
Wash your hands and relax with cotton wool pads soaked with cold rosewater on your eyes for 20 minutes.
Rinse with a face cloth and warm water. 

Activating my nuts and other failures

This whole healthy living business is a bit of a two-steps forward and one-step back process for me – and I think for lots of people. It’s lovely to imagine that you can turn over a new leaf one day, lose your appetite for the ‘bad’ things in life and turn into a zen-yoga goddess, who not only prepares beautiful, nutritious food, but does it all in a spirit of gratitude and happiness.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, you’re desperate for a proper drink on a Friday night, totally sick of cooking and as far as relaxation goes, a box-set binge on the sofa (Narcos S3 here I come…) sounds just the ticket. So, in the absence of a personality transplant, you just have to do the best you can. For me, it’s a case of trying things out, and then I tend to stick with what makes me feel better. In the spirit of honesty, I thought that I’d fess up to a few failures and highlight some of what’s been working recently.

Failures

  1. The activated nuts investment. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with activated nuts, they’re lovely. Along with legumes and grains, nuts contain various substances, termed ‘anti-nutrients’ that are designed to keep them viable until the conditions are right for them to actually grow but which can interfere with mineral absorption and may make them hard to digest. ‘Activating’ them, gets rid of these. Another important fact about activated nuts is that they are really frigging expensive (like over £50 per kilo…). So, in a burst of enthusiasm, I decided that I would activate my own nuts which involves soaking them in salty water and then dehydrating them – simple.

    Active, inactive, who knows…

    All was well, until I discovered that my oven doesn’t go low enough to dehydrate them without also roasting them (delicious, but not right!). So…I decided to buy a food dehydrator (marketed as being useful for preppers, so now might be a good time to buy one) which did, after about 24 hours of irritating humming on my benchtop, dry out the activated nuts. It was all a bit of a faff and I confess that the dehydrator is gathering dust in the cupboard, and all recent nut consumption remains sadly of the inactive variety (which apparently is not a problem, especially if you are eating nuts as a snack away from other food).

  2. The aspirational ingredient purchases. These are the ones that seemed like a really good idea at the time (in those moments when I believed I COULD be a zen-yoga goddess of my kitchen), but have not yet made it into actual food. A brief rummage through my pantry reveals goodies such as chick-pea flour, coconut flour, buckwheat (I did actually try this, I even bloody sprouted it to try to make it taste nice!) a MASSIVE tin of brewer’s yeast (am feeding to Hector; his coat looks beautiful), and some dried out seaweed. Now, because I am stubborn, I will at some point do something with these foods, but really, I could manage perfectly well without them lurking on the shelves, reminding me of their presence.

    Hector and his lovely, brewer’s yeast enriched coat.
  3. The occasional longing for a cigarette. I was never a massive smoker, certainly not after the kids arrived, but there are times, generally involving wine, when I absolutely crave a cigarette. I’d say that it’s about every 3 months when I crack and actually have one (or two…). The thing that annoys me the most is the strength of the desire and the fact that I have been unable to get on top of it completely. I absolutely take my hat off to everyone who has kicked the habit for good.

    Intention vs reality. Sums up my approach to smoking.
  4. My inability to come up with healthy snacks that my kids actually like. I think that the basic problem here is that in a fit of eagerness, I make something overly worthy, involving vast quantities of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, which they initially pretend to like and then beg me not to give them again. I then get pissed off because of the waste of effort and resort to bags of popcorn and Babybels. Really, if I just made something not ridiculously ‘right-on’ but homemade with normal ingredients, I suspect that everyone would be a winner.

Successes

  1. The 12 hour eating window. It’s taken over a year of hearing about how this is a really good idea for me to actually put it into practise. The idea is that you need to give your digestion and metabolism at least 12 hours a day without food in order for these systems to work at their best. There’s a good summary of time restricted eating here. My tactic has been just to not eat anything after 7pm which I thought would be hard, but actually, once I decided not to, has been surprisingly easy. One concern was that I’d feel weak at my 6am fitness class without eating a bedtime snack the night before, but in fact I can do a couple of exercises in the circuit for much longer than usual. I know that’s a classic piece of anecdata and largely meaningless, but I’m totally going to stick with this new habit.

    Me with the big ropes in the gym after my time restricted eating experiment.
  2. A return to daily meditation. Today will be the 30th day in a row that I’ve managed to meditate for 15 minutes and I am so pleased! Before I started up again, I’d been having weird anxiety-like symptoms, despite not having anything to be anxious about and feeling generally pretty good. These have now gone, and after each session, I think ‘I am so glad that I did this’. I do have to pick the right time as there are some times of day, like 9am and 3pm where I just fall straight asleep and find myself drooling in a rather un-zen-yoga goddess fashion, but most of the time it goes really well. I’ve looked into a couple of other online mindfulness/happiness programs like 10%happier and happify but still feel like Headspace is the best tool for me. 
  3. More experiments in fermenting stuff. As I write, I have some big jars of kombucha, which is fermented sweet black tea, doing their thing in the cupboard. A lovely colleague on my course gave me the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast – yum!) which works the magic, and if there is anyone local who would like a bit, or some kefir grains to start their own kefir, just let me know because these things multiply and I hate throwing them away. The reason that I enjoy the faffing of the fermented foods is because I associate them with a big boost in my energy and overall wellbeing, so in cost/benefit terms, they are totally worth it.
I can totally make my kombucha look as pretty as this.

So there we have it. I’d love to know if you have any tips for using up my ‘aspirational’ ingredients, what your successes are, and if there’s anything wellness related that you struggle with. Drop me some comments!

Recipe

Okay, I know that this is not the healthiest recipe in the world, and it does involve my kids’ nemeses – pumpkin and sunflower seeds, but….in the spirit of better options than shop-bought, it’s a goodie. It’s a Nigella recipe, and say what you like about Nigella, her recipes ALWAYS work… The sugar content is admittedly high, however, there’s some protein in the nuts to slow down the glucose spike, plenty of fibre and decent mineral content from the seeds.

Breakfast Bars – from Nigella Express

  • 1 can (397g) condensed milk
  • 250g rolled (not instant) oats
  • 75g shredded coconut
  • 100g dried cranberries
  • 125 g mixed seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame)
  • 125g natural unsalted peanuts (or other nuts chopped to ½ a peanut size)

Prep: Heat the oven to 130℃ and oil a baking tin 23 x 33 cms.

Method:

  1. Warm the condensed milk in a large pan.
  2. Mix together all other ingredients, then add them to the warmed condensed milk, stirring well.
  3. Spread the mixture in the tin, pressing it down well with a spatula or back of a big spoon until it’s even.
  4. Bake for 1 hour then remove from the oven. Let cool for 15 minutes, then cut into bars.

    What they should look like…

The brilliance of brassicas.

Although not the sexiest members of the vegetable world (with the glorious exception of romanesco broccoli), brassicas, also known as cruciferous vegetables, are nutritional powerhouses that deserve a place on our plates every day.

A super-sexy romanesco.

I’ve been trying to find out if there’s any difference between brassicas and cruciferous vegetables, but the two terms seem to be totally interchangeable – if you know different, please tell me! Here in East Lothian, it’s brassica central, with the fields full of cabbages and brussels sprouts so I feel duty bound to make the most of what’s on the doorstep.

Brassicas – my top 10 (a more comprehensive list here)

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage – all varieties, green, red, savoy, chinese/napa.
  • Radish
  • Rocket
  • Kale
  • Pak Choi (and Chinese greens in general).
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Watercress
  • Cress
  • Kale

    Not sure what this is, but I’d bet my house on it being a brassica.

The great thing is that they’re such a broad group that whatever season it is; whether you are in soup or salad mode, there’s always something that you can go for. One item not featured in my top 10, which I feel slightly guilty and unpatriotic about, is the humble turnip. Anyone got any good recipes for neeps that don’t necessarily include haggis and tatties?

What’s so brilliant about them?

  1. They contain cancer-protecting compounds called glucosinolates. These contain sulphur and are responsible for the strong ‘cabbagey’ taste of brassicas. As these compounds are broken down in the body, they create more active substances which have been shown in animal studies to hinder the growth of cancer cells. Studying their effects on humans hasn’t given such clear cut results but there’s an almost £4,000,000 research project underway on this right now so watch this space (and in the meantime, I’ll keep eating my cabbage).
  2. They can help balance oestrogen in the body. As I’ve been studying, it’s become clear that as far as hormones go, what we want to do, is use them for what they’re designed for and then get them out of the body pronto, before they are reabsorbed or start to meander down potentially harmful metabolic pathways. Brassicas not only help us to do this, but can also block oestrogen receptors in cases when there’s too much oestrogen in the body. MEN – this is not just relevant for women – males can also be affected by excess oestrogen, so there’s no excuse for you to avoid your brussels sprouts…

    Have you tried them roasted? They actually taste good!
  3. Their bitter taste stimulates the gall bladder. This might not sound like a big deal, but anyone who has experienced gall-bladder pain will know how excruciating it is when things go wrong in this department. Without a good squirt of bile to break down our fats, cholesterol levels can rise, our digestion can go awry and gallstones can develop. If you already have a gallbladder problem, I certainly wouldn’t suggest eating a cupful of radishes before each meal as it might stir things up too much. But for the rest of us, a handful of rocket leaves or a couple of radishes before dinner, especially if it’s a rich one, will prime the gallbladder and help us digest.(An aside: On holiday in Austria earlier in the year, after ordering some lovely sausages in a bar, little dishes with grated ‘stuff’ appeared alongside them. Presuming that the ‘stuff’ was cheese, we encouraged the kids to get stuck in, only to discover that it was grated horseradish, to help the wursts settle nicely in our stomachs. The boys were horrified, but this was a great illustration of the benefits of brassicas!)

    Beautiful St Johann. Home of the wurst/horseradish combo.
  4. They assist with detoxification. As well as helping to get rid of spent oestrogen; the substances made when brassicas break down in the body help support the super-busy cells of your liver with detoxification in general. Cress actually contains the highest concentration of the compound that does this, so if you’ve got out of the swing of buying those random little punnets of cress in the supermarket, get them back in your basket and on top of your food – they’re the cheapest and most powerful sprouts that you’re going to find in the shops.
  5. They’re full of fibre, vitamins and minerals. The key vitamin components are Vitamins A and C and folic acid (B9) and there’s lots more information about micronutrients in brassicas here.

An important note about brassicas and the thyroid gland:
For people with thyroid problems, there’s a suggestion that a big intake of brassicas could make things worse. From the reading I’ve done, it seems that you need to consume huge amounts of raw vegetables to have any impact on the thyroid gland, and to stay on the safe side, light cooking can prevent any ill effects.

Eating them.

Loads of brassicas, like broccoli and rocket are just part of the weekly shop and however you prepare them at home, it’s worth remembering that chopping them up and giving them a good chew both help to get the good components out of them. (Something like the coleslaw from last week’s blog  is great for this). I reckon that I usually have at least one portion each day, and recently, have loved getting back into things like radish which I never thought to buy, just because it didn’t occur to me. I really am determined to learn to love turnip, and get up to at least 2 portions of brassicas daily.

Radishes, my new favourite. The hotter the better.

Also, I was reading in James Wong’s lovely book; ‘How to Eat Better‘ that if you add a bit of mustard powder to your cooked brassicas (or horseradish, or grated radish) you can reactivate enzymes in the cooked vegetable that make it just as nutritious as the raw version. With this in mind, he has a recipe for a fab mustard dressing. This is great to know because I don’t always feel like chomping my way through a big bowl of raw vegetables, especially now we’re coming into winter up here in the frozen North.

James Wong’s Magic Mustard Dressing.

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp mustard powder
  • Big pinch of good salt
  • 1/4 tsp dried dill
  • 1/4 tsp clear honey

Method:
Whisk together. Et voila.

Finally, another tip from the lovely Mr Wong (he really is quite lovely) , is to go for the darkest or brightest coloured versions of any vegetable as these ones contain the most phytonutrients. So broccoli totally trumps cauliflower, and purple-sprouting broccoli trumps regular broccoli.

Now here’s a recipe from me:

Somewhat Asian Savoy Cabbage

  • 1 savoy cabbage, outer leaves and core removed and shredded
  • 4 grated carrots
  • 1 inch ginger, grated.
  • ½ a red chilli chopped finely
  • 1 teaspoon or 1 tablespoon tamari/soy sauce according to taste
  • ½ a tin of coconut milk

Method.

  1. Get a saucepan with a lid, fill it with about 2cms of water and bring to the boil.
  2. Throw in the cabbage and carrot, put the lid on and leave to cook/steam for about 6 minutes.
  3. Drain the cabbage and carrots very well.
  4. Throw all of the ingredients back into the saucepan and stir them together briefly over the heat.
    (If you want to reactivate the enzymes using the tip above, just add grated raw radish or shredded rocket leaves right before eating).

You could have this along with some brown rice and pan-fried fish for a really easy dinner, it’s very quick and painless to make. (Note: no claims made as to child friendliness) 

Loving your gut bugs.

The health and happiness of the trillions of bacterial cells that live in our digestive system is a topic that’s so hot right now, and only going to get hotter. That’s because, as understanding grows about the function of the 100,000,000,000,000 (that’s a hundred trillion to you and me) microbes inside us, we see that they have profound effects on our physical and mental health. Between them, these microbes contain around 3.3 million genes, making the human genome’s 23,000 look distinctly paltry. Some scientists suspect that it’s our ability to harness the power of these bugs that helps to explain human evolutionary success.

These guys may be the secret of our success.

Honestly, the more I read about this subject (links to some great, entertaining books below), the more my mind is completely blown and I’ve been making a real effort to factor in gut-friendly food for the last few months.

Modern life. It’s not working for the microbiome.

Sadly for us, the health of the human microbiome has taken a pounding in the modern era, thanks to medical developments like antibiotics and c-sections, nutritional trends that see us eating more sugar, food additives and less fibre, and the move to more sedentary, more stressed and more tired lifestyles. Also, just the fact that we eat a much smaller range of foods than our ancestors has led to a much less diverse collection of bacteria in our ‘inner-garden’.

The host/bug exchange. We provide an all-inclusive food and accommodation deal so what’s the payoff?

  1. Protection for our digestive system. Not only do the gut bacteria make an additional physical barrier along the gut lining, they also produce fuel for cells making the mucous layer that keeps the gut wall lovely and healthy. I know this all sounds vaguely gross, but if erosion happens, and substances that aren’t supposed to get across this barrier start to get through, chronic inflammation and depression can result.
  2. Help to break down and absorb foods. This is a complex process and where the microbiome is thought to exert its influence over weight management. Some really interesting experiments on twins have highlighted that individuals with exactly the same genetic makeup, even when differences in calorie intake were taken into account, can have quite different weight outcomes; then when their microbes were tested, they showed quite different profiles with less varied bacterial colonies linked to greater weight gain.
  3. Support for our mental health. There are several processes via which this happens, but if you think about the ulterior motive for the bugs, namely, to help us be sociable so that we’ll hang out together and spread them around, this feels slightly creepy.
  4. Support for healthy immune systems. 70% of the immune system lives in the gut, so it initially seems weird that it’s happy to co-exist with several trillion bacterial cells in close proximity, but current thinking is that a good balance of gut bacteria ‘primes’ the immune system and prevents over- or under-activity. Some bacteria also produce specific antibacterial substances that fight harmful bugs.

    One of the bad guys: Salmonella
  5. Manufacture of helpful substances. As well as making the butyrate to fuel mucous-making cells, gut bacteria also produce B vitamins and vitamin K, plus neurotransmitters, including serotonin. How good is that!
  6. Handling female hormones. A subset of the microbiome called the estrobolome  assists in clearing oestrogen from the body. This is a vital part of maintaining a healthy hormone balance and therefore helps minimise the humongous list of issues associated with periods, the menopause, and all that fun stuff.

The fact that research in this field is in its infancy means that we can expect many more cool revelations to come. A slightly less appealing prospect is the fact that stool testing is likely to become much more common – so if you’re squeamish about your poo, it’s time to let it go!

Actionables

Back in the day, supporting our health with probiotics meant eating a bit of extra yoghurt during  a course of antibiotics, but now we know of lots of things that we can do everyday to nurture our little intestinal pals. Some are really straightforward, while others (making fermented foods) took me a bit of a run-in but turned out to be easier than expected and totally worthwhile. Here’s a quick summary of the main things that I’ve been doing.

Get some leeks onto your chopping board.
  1. Eating more PREbiotics. These are fibres found in fruits and vegetables that we can’t break down ourselves, but can be feasted upon by our friendly bacteria. You can find lots of lists of great prebiotic foods online, but some of the more common ones that are easy to include in the diet include oats, apples, leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus and my much loved flax/linseeds. If you like unripe bananas, you’re onto a winner.
  2. Eating more PRObiotics. Probiotics are live, friendly microorganisms that challenge harmful bacteria, either by crowding them out, or stealing all of their food. You can get them in ‘live’ foods, like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut (not the usual stuff in jars in the supermarket) and kombucha. There’s also a whole swag of probiotic capsules on the market as well as the little drinks in the supermarket (which I would avoid due to sugar content and expense).  I’ve started making my own kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, and although they look like science experiments gone wrong when they’re percolating, and the sauerkraut does stink the cupboard out for a couple of days, they all taste good and I crave them if I have to go without for a day or two. If you are taking, or have just taken antibiotics, you really need to get some probiotics on board!

    Can’t get enough kimchi…
  3. Cutting back on processed food. As ever, sugar is a baddie here, along with emulsifiers (found in ice-cream, cakes, margarine, mayonnaise and…. chocolate) and artificial sweeteners  These are all thought to basically act as fertiliser for harmful bacteria at the expense of our friendly bugs.
  4. Have a generally healthy lifestyle. You know the drill here: more sleep, reasonable exercise, addressing stress before it gets out of control.  Very satisfyingly, the habits that look after your wellbeing are the ones that support a healthy gut profile.

    Good for your mind and your microbiome.

Recipe: Homemade Sauerkraut.

Go on, give it a go! Just remember, don’t cook it or you’ll destroy all of the lovely bacteria (am I selling it to you??). It’s fantastic on top of a salad, or as a way to get your digestive juices going if you eat a tablespoon before a meal. I based this recipe on the instructions given here which you might want to check out. You’d need at least 3 litre-sized jars for this recipe though. 

Warning: Ease your way into incorporating this into your diet, starting with a teaspoon before a meal, then if that goes okay, a tablespoon the next day and so on. I ignored this advice and the resulting biological warfare in my intestines was not particularly fun.

First, choose your cabbage.
  • 1 green cabbage
  • 1/3 red cabbage
  • 1/3 savoy cabbage
  • 2 carrots grated
  • 2 finely sliced garlic cloves
  • Good salt
  • (I also find celery juice a great addition to make the mix more ‘juicy’ and you can either blend about 4 sticks in a blender or nutribullet, or run through a juicer.) This is not essential though.

Method: Finely slice the cabbage (if you have a food processor, it will be very useful here), add in the other ingredients and then weigh. Once weighed, you can work out how much salt to use because for every 800g of vegetables, you need 1 tablespoon of good quality salt. Put all of the vegetables, plus the celery juice and salt into a large bowl and massage vigorously for about 10 minutes until the vegetables have released a lot of juice.

You can now pack the kraut into very clean large jars, it’s important to press down firmly to remove any air and ensure that there’s enough liquid to cover all of the vegetables and some space at the top because it will create some extra juice. If you save some of the large outer cabbage leaves, you can use these as a cover, and then weigh this down to keep everything submerged. There is a useful video guide to packing the jars on the video here  (skip to 16:30 if you don’t want to watch the whole thing). Make sure to set the jars on a plate or something to catch any drips. On no account screw a lid on at this point – we don’t want any explosions! This part of the process is definitely the most fiddly and why I am lusting after one of these snazzy fermentation crocks. (what happened to my life…?)

Place your jars, covered with cloth/kitchen towel to keep contaminants out, into a warm dark place for 4 – 6 days, you can then add lids and keep them in the fridge for up to a couple of months at least.

Book Recommendations:

Gut by Giulia Enders is hugely entertaining, quirky and really informative. The author is a gorgeous young German scientist who is just fascinated by our digestive system. You can watch her in action giving a TEDx talk about ‘Charming Bowels‘! 

The Diet Myth by Professor Tim Spector is a bit meatier than Gut, but really accessible with practical advice as well.

 

Physical Jerks

I feel like I have to write something about exercise because it’s one of the pillars of good health and something that our bodies are designed to do. For ages, it’s key benefit has been sold to us as losing weight. Yes, we hear the odd bit about feel-good endorphins but the take-home message is that we’d better get moving or get fat. Well, on top of making physical activity feel like just another thing to beat ourselves up about, this totally overstates the effectiveness of exercise as a weightloss tool! I bet most of us have had the experience of flogging ourselves on an exercise machine in the gym, only to see on the readout that we’ve burned the calorific equivalent of half a chocolate digestive…

I like to think that I’m capable of the pull-up. Then I try one.

However, exercise (and there are so many flavours to choose from) is 100% essential for a healthy body and mind for tons of reasons that aren’t related to losing weight. The government recommends 150 minutes of cardio each week (brisk walking counts!) plus at least 2 days a week when you are doing strength exercises that work your whole body – both of which sound reasonably achievable. One caveat though for any chat about the benefits of exercise is that once you get into the hardcore side of things, involving serious training programs, the impact of exercise on the body gets more complicated.

What’s it helping?

  1. Healthy Bones. Apart from swimming, most exercise that involves standing up will help to strengthen our bones, and anything involving bouncing or lifting weight will be really beneficial. Keeping our bones strong should be a lifelong goal –  as we build up to maximum bone density in our 20s, and then try to hang on to as much as possible into old age. As usual (sigh), this is a much bigger issue for women, because once our oestrogen plummets with the menopause, bone density can take a really big hit.

    Lift some weights. Your bones will thank you.
  2. A happy gut. ‘Normal’ exercise has been shown to improve digestion with a healthier gut bacteria profile found in active vs inactive people. It’s also fairly common knowledge that it can help with constipation, and in terms of specific exercises, there’s loads of information about yoga for constipation out there. Who knew?! 

    Wow.
  3. Stronger Immunity. Our lymphatic system is highly underrated but crucial for immunity and detoxification in the body, as it sweeps cellular wastes off to our liver and kidneys and matures and deploys immune cells. Unlike blood, lymph fluid hasn’t got a pump to move it around the body, so it depends on the movement of muscles for healthy circulation.
  4. Muscle Mass. Well obviously exercise is good for our muscles but the reasons for this being a good thing are easy to take for granted when you’re young(ish) and relatively strong, but reveal themselves as we age. Decent muscles protect our joints and of course moving them has benefits for our cardiovascular system. Also, and this is a biggie, muscle mass stores blood sugar to use when we exercise, helping to avoid the cycle of insulin release followed by fat storage which contributes to insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes). Even a 15 minute walk after a meal has been shown to have a significant effect on lowering blood sugar. After we hit 50, muscle mass operates on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis – I’m aiming for the ‘use-it’ option.

    Madonna’s using it for shizz.
  5. The brain. The effects of exercise on the brain are huge, huge, huge and what is increasingly apparent is that activity doesn’t just make us feel good, it also improves cognitive function. For example, aerobic exercise has been shown to stimulate the part of our brains which governs learning and memory. There’s lots of research going on to see if exercise can affect the symptoms of dementia, and I think it’s pretty common knowledge these days that it’s been shown to improve mood in cases of depression.
I tried skiing this year and am desperate to be good at it.

Knowing all of those benefits (and there are more, hormone balance, staying youthful, the list goes on…)  is a source of motivation for me but to be honest, it’s the fact that without exercise I feel really low that’s the biggest driver to get me moving. Thinking about the various things that I’ve enjoyed and all of the activities that my pals do, like Pilates and dancing (maybes) and loch-swimming (never!) there’s no reason to get bored of things. Currently, I love the combination of walking and a couple of full-on gym classes each week but fancy something stretchy just to round things out. There are a few things that help me lodge exercise firmly into my routine.

  1. Go with friends. There’s a chance to catch up on some goss, bask in your collective glory when you’re done, and a bit of pressure to force you out of the house. For anything that involves having to get up before 6am, unless you’re a weird morning person, this is is essential. If you can’t get a pal to join you, group classes offer the same camaraderie.

    It’s more fun with your mates.
  2. Find something that’s fun for you. I know, it’s totally obvious, but if you hate the gym – and I find running on a treadmill sooo much harder than running outdoors –  maybe there’s an outdoor option? 
  3. Build physical inefficiency into your life. This might mean parking in the Siberian section of the shopping centre car park (suits my parking capabilities…), moving your printer away from your desk so you have to keep getting up or getting off the bus a stop early. Have you heard about sitting being the new smoking?
  4. Get a dog! I know I always bang on about having a dog, and it’s a huge decision and totally not for everyone, but there’s no getting round going for a walk, and once you’re out it’s always fab.

    Hector: My Constant Companion
  5. Don’t think that you can change your whole life routine to accommodate exercise – it sometimes works for a short period, but then the wheels fall off and you end up shelling out for an unused gym membership or something equally galling. Thinking creatively about how you can fit activity in without too much upheaval to everything else has always worked best for me.

How do you manage to fit exercise in and what do you do?

Recipe: I was planning to do a chia seed pudding recipe because it seemed like a great option – prepare ahead, full of great nutrients, grab and go, etc, etc, but I tried it and found it slightly reminiscent of frogspawn. I still love chia seeds! Just not in pudding form.

It’s cabbage season!

So here’s another recipe that you can make ahead, and I actually prefer it after a day in the fridge. It contains cabbage which is a nutritional powerhouse, pumpkin and sunflower seeds that are full of minerals, and olive oil with it’s anti-inflammatory and heart protective properties.  I wouldn’t attempt this without a food processor to do the slicing and grating for me. It comes from the website Cookie and Kate which has loads of great recipes:

Super-Healthy Seeded Coleslaw – makes a huge bowlful!

  • ¼ of a finely sliced red cabbage
  • ¼ of a  finely sliced green cabbage
  • 3 large grated carrots
  • Large handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • 6 tablespoons of seeds. Choose any mixture of pumpkin, sunflower and sesame.

Lemon dressing

  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  1. Mix together the cabbage, carrots and parsley in a bowl big enough to give everything a good stir.
  2. Measure out your seeds into a small frying pan and toast until you get a nice toasty smell and the sunflower seeds start to pop. Then add them to the bowl.
  3. Whisk the dressing ingredients together
  4. Add the dressing to the slaw and toss until all of the ingredients are lightly coated in dressing. 

If you are going to make this on the same day as eating it, maybe factor in a couple of hours of marinating time.

Not quite looking insta-fabulous but you get the picture…

Top tip: I was listening to a podcast by fitness trainer to the stars, Vinnie Tortorich (who has an amazing voice and dates Kristen Scott-Thomas’ sister Serena BTW), and his response to the question of which one piece of gym equipment he would buy if he had to stay in his house to train was…. a skipping rope. I have been meaning to get one anyway because my skipping skillz in class are so appalling and now it’s definitely on the shopping list. There are tons of videos on youtube of ridiculously ripped individuals showing you how to get the hang of skipping; I like  this one which is a bit less mental than the others. 

Stressing less

The whole concept of ‘stress’ and how it fits into a healthy life is tricky. We’re increasingly told about how harmful it is, but when you’re already on the ropes, the fact that you’re not finding your inner-zen is just another stick to beat yourself with. As it seems to be such an essential part of good health, finding a bit more calmness is near the top of my current to-do list. 

There’s definitely some calmness to be found here.

What’s so bad about stress?

Basically, our bodies are designed to handle stress if it comes in the form of an immediate danger, like getting chased by a bear. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, sugar gets pumped into our blood, the heart starts to pound, blood pressure increases and our immune system gets primed for action. This is fine and dandy presuming it’s an occasional occurrence, and can be a good thing, with nerves before a presentation or exam giving us a sharper mind.

How often do you make this face?

Problems arise when we feel constantly stressed and cortisol/adrenaline are released across the whole day for weeks or months or even years on end. In this scenario, the ‘rest and digest’ mode of our nervous system is overridden in favour of ‘fight or flight’ mode and the background activities that keep our bodies ticking along nicely, like absorbing nutrients, detoxifying our blood, repairing cell damage and making our reproductive and thyroid hormones are put on the back burner.  Chronic inflammation and elevated blood sugar can also result and contribute to major health problems. So unfortunately, even if you are doing everything else right (which you probably aren’t), if you’re suffering from chronic stress, good health is going to be hard to achieve.


But isn’t it just part of life?

It is, so we can’t expect to avoid stress altogether, but can try to improve the way that we respond to those situations that give us that blood-rushing, chest-tightening feeling. For some people, the circumstances that they find themselves in are so difficult that they need to make big changes like leaving their job (or partner…) or moving house-  but for me, just trying to maximise my ‘rest and digest’ time and changing my mindset are the goals. Here’s a list of what’s been helping.

  1. Get enough sleep. My lovely window of child-free time in the evenings has been getting tinier and tinier, so my cunning work-around was just to stay up later. Bad move. The world seems much more horrible when you’re tired and even though I find early nights extremely boring, they’ve got to happen. If you are already chronically stressed, sleep probably won’t be as easy as just going to bed early but there are some great tips here
  2. Enjoy the great outdoors. As a dog owner, getting outside is non-optional and in fact a great bonus to having him around. Lots of studies have shown the benefits of connecting with nature and the other morning after I was lucky enough to watch dolphins leaping around in the bay I really felt on top of the world.   Hanging out with Hector is also (mostly)  relaxing just by itself, so if you don’t have a dog, maybe you know someone who would be happy to share theirs now and again?  

    Some nature.
  3. Mindfulness/Meditation. I felt really calm last year using the Headspace app, but then got lazy and thought that I’d just bin it and go freestyle as required. This hasn’t worked out so it’s time to renew my subscription and start again. You can try Headspace free for a few sessions which I highly recommend if you are interested in mindfulness and would like a well-supported introduction.
  4. Exercise. At the moment I’m doing a couple of high-intensity gym classes each week which I love. There’s something about battering a punchbag that’s extremely cathartic. Exercise is well known to be great for stress reduction, but if you really feel on the edge of burnout, I’d be focusing more on gentle, restorative things like yoga.
  5. Learn to let it go. Trying to live up to unrealistic expectations from other people or the media stresses me out, so these days I just try to disengage.  Happily, this seems to become easier as you get older!

    Example of a healthy mindset.
  6. Epsom Salt Baths. The magnesium in the Epsom Salts helps your muscles to relax and if you haven’t taken a bath for a while, these just feel amazing. You need a good couple of cupfuls of Epsom Salts in each bath and the best place to get them in bulk is amazon
  7. Get into something that isn’t your smartphone. My name is Ellen and I’m a smartphone addict… I can feel it making me restless and squirrely and even though browsing through social media feels like it’s what I want to do when I try to relax, it makes me totally unrelaxed! I love reading so the new goal is to always have a book on the go, and if I start one and don’t like it enough to want to pick it up again, it gets abandoned in favour of one that I’ll actually read. Have just started The Goldfinch which I am loving. For other people perhaps it’s music they can get lost in, or something crafty, the important thing is to focus on something that takes you out of the daily grind. 

    Step away from the smartphone…
  8. Laughing. Whether it’s with friends, at a show, or on tv, it’s the best. I’ve heard a few health-advocate types say that you can’t relax and beat stress by watching tv, but Curb Your Enthusiasm works for me… (also, haven’t they watched GBBO? – it’s televisual prozac).
  9. Going easy on the booze and coffee. Whilst I’m oh so tempted to deal with a stressful day by launching myself at a glass of red, knowing that it’s rarely just the one, and that I’m just making things worse for myself the next day means that I’ve greatly increased my AFDs (that’s Alcohol Free Days…). With each coffee, you are kickstarting your stress hormones and even though I’ve cut down, I am considering a coffee-free experiment just to see if it has a noticeable effect.

How do you chill out and where do you carve out time in the day for it?

Recipe: Pumpkin and Smoked Paprika Soup. For me, making soup is totally relaxing; there’s just something about it that give me the warm and fuzzies, especially now that the Autumn chill has arrived here in Scotland. This makes loads, so there’s hopefully some left over for the freezer but if you prefer to just halve it, it will still work.

The magic ingredient that makes everything taste good.
  • 1 butternut squash.
  • 2 sweet potatoes.
  • 1 white potato chopped into small cubes.
  • 2 onions chopped.
  • 2 large carrots chopped.
  • 1 courgette/zucchini chopped.
  • 2 sticks celery chopped.
  • 500g punnet of mushrooms chopped.
  • 2.5 litres of good chicken or vegetable stock (or bone broth if you have it).
  • 150g quinoa.
  • 2 tbsp butter.
  • 2.5 tsp smoked paprika.
  • Salt and pepper.
  1. Cut the pumpkin and sweet potatoes lengthwise into 4 and deseed the pumpkin. Brush with olive oil and cook in the oven at 170C for 40 minutes.
  2. Melt the butter on a low/moderate heat and sweat the vegetables starting with the onions. Take your time with this and if the mushrooms release lots of juice, wait until this has evaporated before adding the stock.
  3. Add the stock to the pot and simmer for 45 mins. Skin the cooled roasted pumpkin and sweet potato and add these for the last few minutes.
  4. Take the pot off the heat and let it cool slightly before blitzing with a stick blender to get a smooth texture.
  5. Finally, lob in the quinoa and smoked paprika, give a good stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Put back on the heat and bring back to a simmer just until the quinoa is done (no more than 10 mins). If you love the paprika, just add more to taste.

Listening recommendation: If you’re not familiar with Desert Island Discs, it’s a BBC radio series in which a famous person has to choose what songs they would take with them if they were abandoned on a desert island. There is a huge archive on the BBC website, and if you are trying to escape stress you could do a lot worse than setting yourself up with an episode whilst taking an Epsom Salts Bath. Heaven.

10 a day. Like really?

So pretty.

Really. Back in February 2017, the 5 a day message was challenged by a report by Imperial College to say that for optimum health, we should all be eating double the national guidelines, so 10 portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

 

So, naturally, I’ve been giving that a red hot go and getting close most days, only for a major study called the PURE study to come out last week stating that although there were significant health benefits to eating fruit, legumes and vegetables, these seemed to plateau at 4 portions per day. Have my efforts been a waste of time??!!

They haven’t – I feel good eating more plant stuff and although it’s good to keep abreast of the latest research, there comes a point when you have to follow your instincts and pick your own way through the conflicting reports. On the positive side, my kids are closer to 4 a day than 10 so I might just dial down my maternal guilt in that area…

As a starting point – do you know how much of something counts as one of your 10 a day? I didn’t until recently. The portions are actually smaller than I thought, e.g. 3 tablespoons of peas, ½ an avocado or a large carrot. There’s a handy list here and you might find that your intake is higher than you think. You’re not supposed to count any one item twice though because the goal is for lots of variety and to ‘eat the rainbow’ . I also think that having raw as well as cooked vegetables is a good idea, and that cruciferous vegetables  have so many health benefits that they should be on the menu once or twice a day.

If you are wondering what the hell a cruciferous vegetable is, here’s an example. Also broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts.

What worked for me.

  1. Getting off the mark at breakfast. I pretty much always have a smoothie with berries and banana, but other ideas would be to add apple compote, blueberries or other fruit to porridge, have a green smoothie, put avocado and lemon on toast or chuck some spinach into scrambled eggs.
  2. Replace a sandwich at lunch with a salad. It doesn’t take long to throw one together and to fill you up, just make sure that you include something rich on top – some tinned oily fish, some crumbled feta, avocado, you get the picture. Sometimes, the thing that gets to me about this is that actually eating it can be time consuming, but Ali has a great method of attacking the salad in the bowl with a pair of scissors which makes things much quicker. (Yes, I know that we are supposed to allow time and be relaxed and mindful with our meals but….life).  

    Ingredients for the lunchtime salad…
  3. Dress vegetables with something lovely to make them more appealing. I have a recipe for a great dressing below, but whether it’s a vinaigrette or a knob of butter on your carrots, as well as tasting great, the oil/butter in dressings enables us to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. No fat, no absorption.
  4. Add an extra vegetable at dinner time. We always used to have at least one and it’s not much effort to add another. This might be a good time to try new things that aren’t usually on your shopping list.
  5. Juicing. Juicing is currently out of favour because if you use a big juicing machine all the fibre is stripped out so the sugar is quickly absorbed, and spikes your blood levels. It’s because of this that even if you put tons of hugely nutritious things in your juice it only ever counts as one of your 10 a day. On the other hand, if you don’t put much fruit in, you can get loads of micronutrients in one quick hit and avoid the sugar rush. I crave my daily juice, and credit it with a massive reduction in the headaches I used to suffer from (Note: personal experience only, not recommending this as a remedy for anyone else). Of course if you have a Nutribullet, you keep all of the great fibre, but if you can manage the consistency of a veg-heavy smoothie, you’re a better person than me!

    I could lie and pretend that this lovely white kitchen is mine…

Let me know your top tips for eating more fruit and vegetables, and if you have anything that your kids love, please share them because those recommendations are like gold dust!

Recipe: Tahini Lemon Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons of tahini
  • Juice of ½ a lemon
  • 1 teaspoon miso paste
  • ⅓ american cup (equals 5 tablespoons) of water

If you have a stick blender, just blend all of this up in a cup, or you can whizz it in a blender/food processor. It’s great on salads and just FYI, the tahini will give you minerals, including magnesium and calcium, the lemon juice will help you absorb the iron in your leafy greens, and the miso paste is a fermented food so you’ll be supporting your gut health.
Variation: Add half a clove of crushed garlic and half a teaspoon of cumin for a middle-eastern vibe. Goes really well with roasted veggies.

Book recommendation: How to Eat Better by James Wong. This a gorgeous colourful book full of great information with recipes and storage tips that help to get the maximum goodness from your fruits and veggies.

Love this book.

5 food essentials.

If in doubt, compile a list… I though that I’d start with 5 food items that I absolutely hate to be without and that help with the whole healthy living pursuit.

My smoothies genuinely do look like this, just minus the pretty berries on top and artfully arranged leaves…

Kefir(pronounced kehfeer). Apart from my magic juice (it’s just a juice… but the effects were magic) which I will write about on another occasion, kefir is the thing that has given my health the biggest boost. It’s traditionally a fermented milk drink, the name of which derives from a Turkish word meaning ‘to feel good’ and it definitely made me feel good. After I’d been having a kefir smoothie for breakfast for about 3 weeks I noticed that I had much more energy. The thing about it is that it is full of bacteria and yeasts that are fantastic for your gut health. I find that the stuff that I make myself (having purchased this kit) is pretty strong and not great to drink on it’s own, so I just make a smoothie with berries, banana and flaxseeds and it is delicious. You can buy it in supermarkets and these versions are milder and easier to drink ‘neat’. Yes, it can be a bit of a pain to keep straining and restarting the culture, but 100% worth it. I think of it almost like a little pet that needs to be looked after…

2 american-style cups of raw leafy greens like this, equals 1 of your 10 a day…

Bagged salad greens. Regardless of whatever nutritional religion you follow, there is one pillar of faith common to all, and that is to eat lots of ‘green, leafy, vegetables’. I used to think that prepared greens in a bag were a bit of a cheat, which is why whole lettuces would sit forlornly in the fridge until they were surreptitiously transferred to the food bin. No more. You get great variety, instant gratification and less waste (in this house at least) with the bagged stuff, and I would estimate that our consumption has risen by about 500% since I switched over. Make sure to rotate them though – don’t just stick to spinach, variety is key!

Organic eggs. Recently, on a trip down to Galloway to see my parents, the kids and I took a detour along the back roads to see if we could find some eggs being sold along the road and sure enough we found an old coolbox outside a farm with an honesty jar and a couple of cartons of eggs. (Thing 1 has been obsessed with the Famous Five and thought this was the most Famous Five stye food procurement evs). Anyway, the eggs were amazing! Bright orange yolks, thick shells and delicious. Sadly, these are 3 hours drive away and so we’ve reverted to organic eggs from the supermarket which the kids have for breakfast (the protein is great for blood sugar balance). They are the perfect fast food and if you whack a fried one on top of pretty much anything including a grain-bowl creation, the kids are reasonably likely to approach the dish with an open mind.

Flaxseeds aka linseeds. These featured in our ‘superfoods’ lecture last year because as well as being great for the digestive tract, they also have an oestrogen balancing effect and contain Omega 3s. I aim to eat at least 2 tablespoons a day (either in the smoothie or sprinkled on top of soup or a salad). They do need to be ground before use and as the oil can oxidise quite easily, I find that the best way to handle them is to buy a big bag of organic whole linseeds and then grind batches as required in the nutribullet. If that sounds boring beyond belief, just buy them ready ground – you can even get them in Aldi – just make sure to store them in the fridge.

Approximately 3 days supply of citrus fruit in our house…

Lemons and limes. Is there anything nicer than the smell of fresh-cut lime? Don’t think so. We seem to go through millions of them, starting from when I get up and have a mug of lemon juice and warm water. They also go into juices as they take away the bitter flavour of greens, get mashed with avocado, go with fish of course, in salad dressing, and into my friday night cocktail of vodka, kombucha cordial, juice of 1/2 a lime topped up with sparkling mineral water… You can also make a great exercise recovery drink with the juice of 1 lime, 1 lemon, 1 orange, a pinch of good salt, a little maple syrup and about a pint of water. Shake it up and it’s good to go.

What are your food essentials? Leave a comment above left and let me know.

My version of ‘natural health’.

About a year ago I was chatting to friends about trying to be more ‘healthy’ when one of them asked what I actually meant. It was a great question – we hear so much about what we should be doing for our health and then make hundreds of micro-decisions based on this miasma of information, but we don’t always think about what we are trying to achieve and why. So here’s a quick summary of the things that say ‘natural health’ to me.

  1. Eating well. There are so many versions of eating well out there at the moment and for different people, this might mean gluten- and dairy- free, paleo, low-carb, high-fat but the principle that has worked for me is just to focus on choosing food that is nutrient-dense. So, lots of vegetables and fruit, plenty of fibre, fermented foods for my gut bugs, heathy fats, grass-fed and organic meat. It’s taken over a year of gradual changes to get to the point where I reckon I eat ‘well’ 70% of the time but there’s lots more work to be done – especially when it comes to family food…

    Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Unsplash
  2. Less alcohol. Well, you never see people making new year’s resolutions to drink more – right? I’ve been cursed with a propensity for dreadful hangovers so have never been a massive boozer, however, found myself a bit uncomfortable with how few alcohol-free days I could count in a month. Interestingly, there are quite a few studies that seem to some health benefits linked to moderate wine drinking including a recent one about diabetes risk so I don’t feel like going teetotal has to be the end game. This is going pretty well although for some reason, social things seem to come in bunches so I end up having a heavy couple of weeks but then cutting back down seems to come really easily.
  3. Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
  4. Managing stress. Until I started my nutritional therapy course and learned about how things work in our bodies, I knew that stress was bad for health because it’s a topic that’s often in the news (so when you’re feeling stressed you’ve got something else to add to your list of 4am worries) but I didn’t consider how or why. I won’t list all of the effects but there’s a great summary here. Suffice to say that you shouldn’t treat stress as a normal part of modern life, and looking after your mental wellbeing has direct benefits for your physical health. Exercise, mindfulness, and giving less of a shit about trivial stuff have all helped here. Don’t think I’m ever going to be a Zen master but doing things that foster a positive mental outlook is totally part of my natural health kick.
  5. Exercise. In the same way that a happy mind supports a healthy body, exercise supports a healthy mind. I wonder if people would be more inclined to exercise if we thought of it as making us happier rather than thinner… I remember years ago, having run a half-marathon, I then took a couple of weeks off training only to find myself sobbing at dinner over something ridiculous. Ali suggested I get my trainers back on, and indeed that was all it took to get over my blues. As a northern-hemisphere woman in my 40s, I’m also conscious of looking after my bones, so have got this to factor in too.
  6. Sleep. Research that highlights the importance of good sleep to overall health seems to emerge all the time. I have two challenges in this area. The first is the fact that as my kids get older, my child-free window in the evening grows smaller which means that I compensate by staying up later to get that all-important box-set viewing in. The second is that I have an undeniable smartphone addiction and even though I know that it needs to go off in the evening, I find myself lying in bed having a final scroll through facebook. If anyone has any top-tips in this area, I’m all ears.

    My gorgeous dog Hector is very good at sleeping.
  7. Avoiding toxins and environmental pollutants. People who have a bee in their bonnet about the natural health movement love to sneer at this aspect. Their schtick is that everything is made of chemicals and that if you feel a bit wary at the sound of dihydrogen oxide (the chemical name for water) you’re a lentil-weaving idiot. This attitude really grinds my gears. There’s a good reason to feel wary of the huge plethora of synthetic substances that we are exposed to on a daily basis – for example, BPA, which we now know to avoid. I’ve still got plenty of work to do in this regard and plan to start replacing cookware this year as every now and again I notice the bashed up, non-stick base of one of my frying pans, or the flaky surface of an el cheapo baking tray and know that they need to be turfed out. One product totally on my shopping list is beeswax food wrap to use instead of cling film – it’s gorgeous and looks like something that’s been pinched from a famous five picnic basket!

No doubt I’ve missed something crucial here – what does natural health mean for you?