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.