Monthly Archives: October 2013

Meal Ideas: Chicken Thighs with Squash Fries and Braised Greens

This post is part of the Meal Ideas series. Finding something to eat that is simultaneously affordable, quick to prepare, healthy, AND delicious can be next-to-impossible sometimes. In this section I post pictures of the food I make, links to recipes I love, and some tips for saving time and money while still cooking great-tasting healthy food.

Chicken thighs with butternut squash fries and braised rainbow chard

Chicken thighs with butternut squash fries and braised rainbow chard

As the weather has gotten progressively colder over the last month, I have found my mind more and more frequently turning to meals like this one. There’s something about fall weather that just begs for roasted squash or root vegetables, and the chicken — with crispy skin right out of the oven — seems like the perfect pairing.

This is a great meal to make for company because all of the prep can be done ahead of time: all that’s left to do right before dinner is to quickly braise the greens and to take the chicken and fries out of the oven.

Ingredients

  • 6-10 Chicken thighs (however many will fit on your baking sheet)
  • 1 Butternut squash (a few sweet potatoes would also work well)
  • 1 bunch swiss chard (or kale or spinach or a combination)
  • 3-6 Tbsp coconut oil (or other cooking fat)
  • 2 tsp herbes de provence
  • salt and pepper
  • water

Tools

  • vegetable peeler
  • 2 baking sheets
  • parchment paper
  • frying pan

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F
  2. Peel and cut the squash according to these instructions. Cut into fry-shaped wedges or 1″ cubes, depending on your preference.
  3. Place parchment paper on each baking sheet
  4. Melt coconut oil
  5. Spread out squash pieces on one baking sheet.
  6. Toss with 1-2 Tbsp coconut oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  7. Place chicken thighs on the other baking sheet
  8. Mix the herbes de provence with 1-2 Tbsp coconut oil. Spread over the chicken thighs.
  9. Place both baking sheets in the oven for 40-45 minutes. Flip squash half-way through (20 minutes).
  10. After about 30 minutes, roughly chop the greens, removing the stems.
  11. Place frying pan on the stove over medium-high heat and add remaining coconut oil to the pan.
  12. Sauté greens along with coconut oil and some water according to these instructions.
  13. When the greens are fully wilted, serve alongside the chicken thighs and squash fries.

How To: Afford Real Food on a Budget

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

One of the most difficult parts about a switch to a Real Food lifestyle is learning how to deal with how expensive real food can be in comparison to processed alternatives. When you’re on a tight budget, it can be really tempting to just grab a bag of pasta and a can of tomato sauce (which will cost only a few dollars and will feed you for days), but in the long term that sort of diet could lead to all sorts of nutrient deficiencies and other health problems. On the other hand, the price tags on fresh vegetables and meat can definitely make you think twice about making healthy choices. In the last year, I’ve learned a few things about how to make healthy eating financially feasible on a student budget.

Budget Priorities

The first thing to decide is what level of priority food has in your budget. How important is it to you? This is different for everyone, and sometimes it changes over time. If you have very little income and a lot of student debt, you’re probably going to be looking for the least expensive options for everything, including food. However, if you have some flexibility with your budget, maybe you’ll decide that buying more tender cuts of meat or opting for organic vegetables is something that matters to you. It may cost a little more, but if you feel it’s important to your health, maybe it’s worth it. The important thing is to evaluate those priorities so that you know what to spend your money on once you get to the grocery store.

Eating Out

Eating out (or ordering in) is generally a major part of the student lifestyle. It’s an easy way to meet up with friends, and it’s often more convenient than cooking something at home (because who has time to cook or do dishes when there’s a paper due?). However, it can often get VERY expensive, especially when a dinner out turns into an evening of drinks with friends. Plus, for the type of food that can usually be found at a student pub, you’re being massively overcharged. If you’re looking to be more healthy on a budget, eating out is a great thing to cut out: you save money, and you can redirect that $20-30 you would have spent on one meal with a drink towards a quality real food meal at home.

If you usually eat out with friends, try inviting them over to your place for a meal instead. It’s pretty easy to make a large meal for under $20, so you wouldn’t be spending any more money (probably less), and you would get to keep the leftovers. Your friends will probably love saving the money too, and they might even chip in for ingredients, bring over a side dish or dessert, or reciprocate sometime by cooking dinner for you.

Meat (and other protein)

Now I’ll give you some practical tips for grocery shopping. The first thing to do is find a good grocery store: one that frequently has good deals on produce or sales on meat, and preferably one with a 10% student discount (many Loblaws stores have student discounts on Tuesdays). Convenience stores ARE NOT a good place to buy food: even if they have anything worth eating, it’s going to be marked up outrageously. (Yesterday I was in my local convenience store and saw canned bamboo shoots — which I buy from Loblaws for less than $2 — for $3.99!). Definitely find a real grocery store.

Protein can be one of the most expensive elements of any diet. Meat and fish, especially, are hard to afford on a budget. Eggs are a great, inexpensive alternative, with a dozen usually selling for between 3 and 4 dollars. For meat, the best options are usually ground meat and organ meats. Conventional ground meat (the type from grain-fed animals that can be found a grocery stores) is usually sold for $3-4 per pound, and organ meat is even less expensive because it’s not very popular (though it is the most nutrient-dense meat available). Fresh fish is generally very expensive, but canned fish is usually more reasonable, and it often goes on sale. Canned fish like sardines and wild salmon ($1-4/can) are excellent sources of omega-3 fats and calcium.

Grass-fed or pastured meat is generally more expensive than the conventional type, so it depends on your budgeting priorities whether you think its health benefits are worth it. This is a useful post from The Paleo Mom which ranks the health benefits of various different types of meat and fish; it can help you decide if something is worth the price. If you do decide to eat good quality meats sometimes, try to get them directly from the farmer. Some butchers will carry grass-fed beef, but it’s usually more expensive than getting it from the farmer. A grass-fed beef farmer who I met at my local farmer’s market sells me 5 pounds of ground beef for $20 and organ meat for $2/lb.

If you prefer more expensive cuts of meat like steaks or roasts, I recommend waiting until they’re on sale at the grocery store and then stocking up. Often grocery stores will give big discounts for any meat that’s approaching its best-before date; buy it and freeze it until you want to use it. That goes for any type of meat on sale: chicken thighs and whole chickens go on sale frequently for as little as $2/lb. I periodically go to Costco to stock up on inexpensive meat; the picture below is about $400 worth of meat at an average of $4.50/lb.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

What my freezer looked like after my last Costco trip.

Vegetables

Vegetables are a little harder to budget than meat because most types of veggies are harder to freeze and save for later. However, vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower, and broccoli are always good ones to chop up and keep in the freezer. Similarly, tomatoes can be made into huge batches of tomato paste and sauce to be preserved or frozen and kept for later. This can be useful in cold climates where very few vegetables are in season over the winter.

The best idea for buying vegetables on a budget is buying seasonally. Usually, if something is in season and local, it will be less expensive than something that had to be shipped a long way. Plus, if it’s in season, there is plenty available to meet the demand, so the prices will be lower — unlike when you’re looking for strawberries in December. Most grocery stores will have signs that tell you in which country the vegetables were grown. If you’re in Canada like me, opt for veggies from Canada or the US instead of from Chile or China.

Alternatively, find a few staples that are inexpensive all year round to use as go-to options. Things like cooking onions, carrots, mushrooms, and bananas don’t vary in price much during the year and are all fairly inexpensive. Similarly, squashes are generally sold for about $1/lb for a large portion of the year.

If you have the time and/or inclination, growing some of your own foods would be a useful budgeting tool. However, if you’re a student, you probably, like me, don’t have enough time or space to do any gardening.

Pantry Items

Pantry items are things that can really tie a meal together. It is important to have a stock pile of herbs, spices, oils, vinegars, cooking fats, condiments, etc. on hand to make a meal really interesting. These are the sorts of things that you don’t need to buy every week: you can stock up on them once and then just replace them gradually as they’re used up. Unfortunately, they tend to cost a lot when you do need to buy them.

The most important thing to do when stocking pantry items is to keep an eye out for sales. If you have a favourite brand of olive oil, buy 2 or 3 bottles when it goes on sale. Also try buying in bulk when possible. Spices, especially, can be bought in bulk and are less expensive that way than when they are sold together with jars or containers of any kind. Buy the spices in bulk and store them in reused condiment containers or jars from the dollar store.

The type of pantry item that I have found to be most unnecessarily expensive is baking ingredients. “Healthy” baking (with grain-free flours and natural sugars) ends up being a very expensive undertaking. If that’s important to you, try finding the ingredients in bulk (Bulk Barn is a great place to look). Personally, I just don’t bother baking except on special occasions, and I save my money for the vegetables and meat that I care more about.

 

These are the tools I use to eat real food on a student budget. If you have any other ideas, please post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear more suggestions 😀

 

Conventional Wisdom: How Your “Healthy” Habits May Be Harming Your Health

 

Fresh vegetables are important components of a...

Fresh vegetables are important components of a healthy diet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

There are people in the world who don’t care about their health or what they put in their bodies. That’s fine, and that will always be the case; anyone is welcome to choose what they want to be apathetic about. What makes me really sad, however, is seeing the other type of people: the people who really care, who want to be healthy, and yet can’t seem to make it happen. I spent many years of my life like that: doing most of what my doctor and my health teacher were telling me to do, with no effect. There were many reasons for this, including a disordered and emotional relationship with food, but even when I started doing EVERYTHING “right,” I still wasn’t getting healthy.

This isn’t just about my experience, though. Speaking with my friends and acquaintances I see frequent examples of people doing what they have been told is “healthy” and not seeing any resulting changes in their overall health. I attribute this primarily to the fact that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to a healthy lifestyle but that most people don’t know what the other options are: it’s what conventional wisdom says or nothing. The following, then, is a list of four “healthy habits” that I have found are the most commonly misunderstood or are simply wrong. This is not to say that all of these habits are wrong for all people: only that if your efforts to get healthy are failing or coming up short, these may be good places to start tweaking. Most of these are habits with which I have personal experience and which I have seen tremendous benefit in changing.

Eating “low-fat,” “low-calorie” foodsConventional wisdom tells us that in order to lose weight and/or get healthy, it is necessary to eat fewer calories and less fat. However valid or invalid this advice is can be argued at another time; what is important about this recommendation is that it has, over the course of the last few decades, led to an explosion of the “low-fat” “low-cal” food production market. Grocery stores have been flooded with low-fat cheeses and reduced-calorie fruit juice drinks, and people will choose those products over their higher-calorie, higher-fat alternatives because they are wanting to make healthy choices. In order to make those products lower fat, however, the food production companies have to highly process those foods: replacing fats with artificial and processed foods whose direct effects on the human body are unclear.

This same problem applies to other dietary recommendations like “low-carb,” “organic” and, in the last few years, “gluten-free.” As companies realize the marketing potential of any new health craze, they seek to exploit it by putting health labels on processed foods. These processed foods, however — no matter what their labels — have been linked to a multitude of health issues including fat loss resistance.

Alternatives: The primary alternative to this habit is JUST EAT REAL FOOD. No matter what dietary philosophy you ascribe to, eating real food as opposed to processed will almost definitely improve your health since your body is designed to process and absorb real food, not the stuff created in a factory.

Running (or other moderate-to-high-intensity cardio): To anyone who regularly participates in long distance or long duration cardiovascular activity, the suggestion that running might be harmful to one’s health seems blasphemous. Running, in particular, has a sort of cult-like status in North American society: people who run get competitive and almost monomaniacal about their chosen form of exercise (just walk into The Running Room sometime and you’ll see what I mean). It seems to be frequently assumed that those who run marathons are at the peak of health. This assumption, however, is often incorrect.

Cardiovascular activity puts a lot of stress on the body. This stress can be beneficial sometimes in short durations (all exercise is a stressor), but hours and hours of this stress each week can be harmful to the body, especially in the long term. Evolutionarily, the human body has been built to run in some situations (while hunting or outrunning a predator, for instance); however, those situations would historically have been occasional, very high stress situations in which the most important thing for the body would be to prioritize running. In that moment, other bodily functions, such as good digestion, would not have been nearly as important. Taking a cue from this evolutionary model, it seems unlikely that most people’s bodies have adapted to run long distances without sacrificing some other elements of health. So, if you are on the treadmill for an hour a day or frequently training for marathons or 10K races, it is possible that you are damaging other aspects of your health without meaning to.

To read more about this, I recommend looking at Mark’s Daily Apple: Mark Sisson, a former professional marathoner, has written extensively about the dangers of what he calls “chronic cardio.” Also, John Kiefer has written an excellent article about the link between running (specifically in women) and thyroid health; the article has 80 scientific references, if you’re interested in doing even more in-depth research.

Alternatives: If you really love running (or other cardio activities), ask yourself if you are doing it for health or because it is your sport. If it is a sport to you, maybe you will decide that you are willing to sacrifice some element of health to improve your performance. If you are doing it to get healthy, however, (like I was) it might be a good idea to start reducing the cardio. Try walking, yoga, weightlifting, and/or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to see if those would work better for you.

Eating “healthy whole grains”: This is probably the “healthy habit” over which there has been the most debate in recent months and years. Books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain are hitting the bestseller lists every week, and more and more people are beginning to try eliminating gluten and sometimes other grains from their diets. However, “healthy whole grains” is still a common term to hear thrown around and an especially common term to see on processed food products in the grocery store. Cereals full of sugar are marketed as healthy with the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s “Health Check” prominently displayed on the boxes. Fat, calories, and salt are all demonized in the grocery store, but sugar and grains (which are converted into sugar in the body) are encouraged as part of a “balanced diet.”

Alternatives: Instead of eating cereal and other grain products, opt for vegetables that will provide many more nutrients per calorie than “healthy whole grains”.

Not eating meat/Becoming vegetarian: Before you jump down my throat for including this item in my list, please hear me out. I am not saying that everyone has to eat meat. As I have said before, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to diet, and probably there are some people who do better without meat. There are also those who, for moral, ethical, or religious reasons, have opted not to eat meat, regardless of any effects it may have on their health. What I am talking about here is the general assumption that seems to have permeated society that eating meat (or specifically red meat) is universally unhealthy. Off the top of my head, I can count at least six conversations I’ve had in the last two months with people who have proudly told me that they have dramatically reduced the amount of meat they are eating in order to “get healthy.”

There are several problems related to a refusal to eat meat, such as nutrient and protein deficiencies. Some people who are consciously aware of these potential deficiencies design their diets and supplement regimens to compensate. However, people who have a more anomalous and abstract idea about the health benefits of going meat-free often accidentally reduce meat without compensating with sufficient alternative protein sources or vitamins. This can inadvertently lead to many health issues related to nutrient deficiency.

The bigger issue with the assumption that meat-less diets are healthier than those containing animal protein is that people seem to take that to mean that anything vegetarian or vegan is automatically also healthier. This is similar thinking to the “low-fat,” “low-cal,” “gluten-free” processed foods discussed above: you can still easily find vegetarian junk food, and a junk food diet, no matter how much or how little meat it contains, will never be healthy.

Alternatives: If you do choose to eat little or no meat, I highly recommend taking a close look at what you are eating and trying to optimize it with real food, soaked and sprouted legumes and grains, and high-quality fats. Take a look at these useful recommendations based on the diets of traditional cultures. If, however, you find that your health is not optimal with so little meat, take a look at the articles assembled here to consider how meat (especially well-raised meat) can be successfully incorporated into a healthy diet.

Personal Hurdles: Weight Fluctuations

I admire people who don’t own scales. I admire people who don’t know what they weigh.

I am not one of those people. I own a scale and I know exactly what I weigh. In fact, after so many years of obsessing over the number on the scale, I can now look in the mirror and accurately estimate my weight (within 1 lb). Even if I got rid of my scale tomorrow, I’d still know exactly how much I weigh.

Weight has been an important measurement for me since middle school. Like many (if not most) people in our society, I saw weight as being the most significant indicator of health. Thin people were healthy; fat people were not. Obesity was the cause of health issues (heart disease, diabetes, joint pain, etc.).

I have since realized that my assumptions here were false. Sure, obesity is often correlated with health issues, but it is false to assume that those who have a low BMI are automatically healthier. Being a “healthy” weight does not guarantee health; thin people are also plagued by IBS, infertility, cancers, autoimmune conditions, and all manner of other issues (including type 2 diabetes which many people I encounter seem to think is related to weight alone). Obesity may be correlated with ill health, but it is very unlikely to be the root cause.

I saw this first hand. From when I was 19 to when I was 20, I lost more than 60 lbs (from a BMI of 34 to one of 23). I had gone from obese to “normal” in a year, but my health hadn’t really improved. My asthma was better, yes, but not gone, and during the course of the year I’d developed a circulation condition called Raynaud’s Disease. On top of that, my knees had started to hurt (just a little) when I exercised — at the ripe old age of 20. These are relatively minor health issues, so I brushed them off as irrelevant and pushed on to reach my weight loss goals. Looking back, however, I realize that this should have clued me into the fact that 60 lbs were not the only thing standing between me and health.

As I write this today I am approximately 140 lbs. It’s about 10 lbs heavier than my lightest weight and about 5 lbs heavier than the weight at which I feel most healthy. I’m still not able to say I don’t care about these numbers. There’s a voice in my head telling me that if I just lost those 10 (or maybe 15) lbs, that my thighs/calves/stomach/arms will look better. That voice still pushes me to lose that weight in any way possible. I can’t tell you that voice doesn’t exist, but I can tell you that I no longer listen to it. What I am able to say today is that I no longer think of weight as the sole marker of my health, and my goal is not to lose weight but to become optimally healthy.

Maybe in the future I’ll put on muscle and look smaller, even at the same weight, or maybe I’ll put on both weight and muscle, or maybe I’ll stay exactly the same size and weight I am right now. I don’t know how my body will change in the future, but I do know that I will continue to ignore that voice in my head and one day (maybe soon) I’ll throw out that scale entirely.

Meal Ideas: Liver and Onions

This post is part of the Meal Ideas series. Finding something to eat that is simultaneously affordable, quick to prepare, healthy, AND delicious can be next-to-impossible sometimes. In this section I post pictures of the food I make, links to recipes I love, and some tips for saving time and money while still cooking great-tasting healthy food.

IMG_0597

Grass-Fed Beef Liver and Onions with Mashed Rutabaga

It took me a long time to work up the courage to try making this meal for the first time. Like many people, I grew up with a socialized prejudice towards organ meat, especially liver. This was not helped by the fact that one of the only times I ever tried it  was in a restaurant where they’d overcooked it. (Yuck). When I started eating paleo and decided to seek out the most nutrient-dense foods, I discovered that grass-fed beef liver is one of the most powerful superfoods out there. It’s full of vitamins, including (but not limited to) iron, zinc, B12, folate, A, D, and K2. Still, I was hesitant to try it because all I could think of was that overcooked liver taste.

This is now one of my favourite go-to meals for several reasons. First for me, of course, is nutrient density, but believe me when I say that that would not be a good enough reason to put it on the table in my household. My non-paleo boyfriend couldn’t care less about nutrition and nutrient density, but he loves this meal — the first time I made it he asked if we could have it “every night”. This is for three reasons. First, it’s inexpensive: organ meat is some of the least expensive protein around, and I buy 1.5 lb bags of grass-fed beef liver from a local farmer for $3. That’s $2 per pound! Second, it’s quick to make, so it’s an excellent candidate for a quick weeknight dinner. Third, if cooked correctly, it tastes really good. The trick is to not overcook it.

The instructions below are just for liver and onions. I recommend having one other side vegetable as well, but the type of veggie is totally up to your own tastes. My favourites with this meal are Mashed Faux-Tatoes from Practical Paleo or mashed rutabaga because they are useful to soak up the liquid from the onions. Both of those suggestions take awhile (around 45 minutes with prep usually), so if you don’t have that time, I recommend just putting something like carrots or broccoli on the stove to steam while you prepare the liver and onions.

Ingredients

  • 3 large white or yellow onions
  • 2 Tbsp cooking fat, separated (I usually use bacon grease or tallow for this)
  • 1-1.5 lbs grass-fed beef liver, strips
  • red wine (or red wine vinegar), to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Tools

  • Large-bottomed pan (preferably stainless steel)

Method

  1. Slice onions thinly
  2. Melt 1 Tbsp cooking fat over medium-high heat
  3. Add onions to the pan; sauté until translucent (usually 15-20 minutes)
  4. When onions are done, remove from the pan
  5. Melt the second Tbsp of cooking fat in the pan
  6. Add strips of beef liver to the pan
  7. Cook for 60-90 seconds on each side (just until the outside is all browned — the inside should still be pink)
  8. Remove liver from the pan
  9. Add onions back to the pan and deglaze with a splash of wine or vinegar
  10. Sauté a few minutes longer (until all the tasty brown bit from the bottom of the pan have become part of the sauce)
  11. Add salt and pepper to taste
  12. Serve onions over liver and with a side of vegetables.

Getting Lost In the Science: How the Health Industry Is Leaving People Behind

Awhile ago, I read a blog post by Kevin Geary on The Rebooted Body whose title read, “The Health and Fitness Industry Is Dead. (And that Includes You, Paleo).” My first thought on seeing that title was that it would be another off-the-mark criticism (like Paleofantasy or Sally Fallon’s arguments in the WAPF newsletter) of this lifestyle I’ve chosen to adopt. What I found, however, was an incredibly insightful critique with which I almost entirely agree.

In the article, Geary attacks what he terms “high fact diets” — the sort we’ve all been exposed to from all different angles. Everywhere you look in the health and fitness industry, people are throwing “facts” at you. Someone is always trying to tell you what your macronutrient ratio should look like or how long you should exercise and at what intensity. One person might cite a study about how red wine prevents cancer and then another person might cite a study about how any alcohol at all leads to nutrient deficiency. It can get confusing and — more importantly — it can hinder people’s progress towards health.

Focused on facts, facts, and more facts, the proponents of real food diets like Paleo, Primal, Weston A. Price, Clean Eating, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), Perfect Health, and even Raw Food and Vegan get caught up nitpicking about issues of carb and protein sourcing and whether agave nectar is a legitimate form of sweetener. They get so caught up in this that they forget about all the people out there still stuck in an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting and poor health. As Geary states, “This [paleo] revolution failed because it got lost in the science — it got lost correcting the record of mainstream medicine and forgot about developing a way to help people who are alone in the trenches, bruised and muddy from years of trying and failing.”

Now, being a nutrition nerd, I personally love learning about the science behind food choices, but even I confess to being frequently overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. And let’s face it: even if we were somehow able to find the perfect formula that would give everyone in the world perfect health, there would still be people who wouldn’t follow it. Why? Because issues of food choice and fitness are a lot less dependent on facts and information than on psychology. “The new revolution is about the psychology of success,” asserts Geary.

I’m happy to say that this fact has already been recognized in many areas of the paleo community. Bloggers like Stefani Ruper from Paleo for Women, Stacy Toth from Paleo Parents, George Bryant from Civilized Caveman Cooking Creations, Sarah Ballantyne from The Paleo Mom, and Jason Seib from Everyday Paleo have all been talking about issues of psychological motivation, disordered eating, and body image, among others. More people, however, need to join in.

This is an important issue for me because one of the major reasons that I have fully adopted a paleo lifestyle is that it helped (and is continuing to help) me work through a lot of psychological and emotional issues associated with both food and exercise. By talking about these issues, by focusing on psychology rather than nitpick-y facts (like whether or not to eat rice), real food diets like Paleo and many others can affect people’s lives in bigger ways than through health and fitness alone. As Geary states, “[T]he information alone isn’t helping people: it stands no chance when confronting the enemies of addiction, dependency, low self worth, unhealthy body image, low confidence, depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness. It can’t correct the consequences of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, which in varying degrees is far more pervasive than anyone wants to admit.”

It clearly won’t be easy, and there isn’t just one way to address this issue, but what is clear is that it needs to addressed. We need to stop getting lost in the science and reach out to real people who are dealing with issues much bigger than whether or not potatoes are “paleo”.

 

(To read more about this, take a look at the original article on rebootedbody.com/health-fitness-dead, buy Jason Seib’s book The Paleo Coach, and check out The Paleo View and EP Lifestyle and Fitness podcasts).