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. 

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.

 

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.