Friday, March 21, 2014

Operation Happy Guts

Oh look at that, another nearly-2 year hiatus from the blog, coinciding with the arrival of another offspring.  Funny how that happens.  Sorry, I just didn't have much to post about.  My life has been very busy, my diet has been somewhat dubious and not particularly exciting or noteworthy, and the blog has therefore languished in the depths of the internet.

The latest spawn is now one year old, though, and it's time to get my rear in gear and do something about my post-partum crap-fest. The basic problem seems to be that I have become incapable of making good decisions, moment-to-moment, about what to eat.  A large portion of my food intake happens because I am feeling tired/crappy/anxious/depressed/actually-happy-for-once and I require something to either ameliorate or enhance the mood hormones (oh hi sugar!!!), or because I am hungry and just grabbing whatever because I might have 15 minutes to eat and I don't want to spend 14 1/2 of those preparing stuff (oh hi crappy sandwich!!!).

Of course, there is a not-insignificant number of times when I eat crap because I can.  And that is what I feel I can maybe tackle now, if I can get my stress level dialed down a little and put my brain in a better nutritional space.  Since I haven't stopped reading about good nutrition and food-health links (just stopped DOING anything about what I read) I'm getting a clearer picture about what constitutes a human being (hint: you're more bacteria than you are human. What's *really* doing the thinking, hmmm?) and the evidence is starting to look good for the theory that at least part of one's brain chemistry is determined by one's gut residents.  Lots of back-and-forth between brain workings and gut workings... and mounting evidence that anxiety and depression, at least, if not lazy-assedness, can be mitigated by improving gut flora.  And while I don't think my gut flora are in dire straits, exactly, I don't think they're anywhere near as healthy as they could be.  Let's just say that evidence to the contrary is presented to me regularly and leave at that for now.  Some people overshare on their blogs, I think it's sufficient to say that my insides aren't coping well and leave it at that.

Thus I launch my new project - Operation Happy Guts - in hopes of reversing (or even just slowing) the spiral of poor nutrition leading to unhappy stress-thoughts leading to more poor nutrition.  This will no doubt be a lengthy process, because despite the fact that bacteria can produce a new generation every 20 minutes, there's like, a billion or so of the little buggers and I'm sure the bad ones aren't going to just pack up and go at the first hint of regular kimchee intake or something.  No, this is going to require systematic, habitual and gradual biological simultaneous warfare and habitat-building. 

I'm going to focus first on the habitat-building and do the warfare later - because habitat-building basically means I just have to eat extra stuff, whereas warfare involves withholding things from the buggies like sugar and refined starches, and I'm probably not there yet.  But I CAN give the good buggies more to work with so that they out-compete the less-compatible buggies and then hopefully the bad guys will stop sending quite so many "sugar is AWESOME!!!" messages to my poor, susceptible little brain.  (This is probably a vast, horrible oversimplification of the nature and scope of the signalling that happens between gut bacteria and neurons and neurotransmitters in the brain.  I am aware of this.  I am also not remotely qualified to try to explain it properly so I'm not even going to try.)  Also I have heard the idea that probiotics work not by filling your guts with good bacteria but by introducing some well-behaved bacteria who then teach the resident ones to smarten up.  (I'm sure this process goes the other way too, so I think you probably have to keep "teaching" them.)

First up:  kefir *every* morning, help the little dude finish off his Treehouse brand probiotics (no I wasn't the one shopping the day those got purchased), and have a dose of lacto-fermented veg with either lunch or dinner.   I will get the kefir on now for Sunday morning, and start a batch of grated carrots fermenting away with just salt and see how that goes.  (There are no good cabbages in the stores now for sauerkraut).  I was going to buy some nice "mild kimchee" in an attractive big jar from a hippy joint on Salt Spring (I'm not even kidding about that - they carry it at Niagara Grocery) but it was $21.99 and really? It's chopped up vegetables and salt and I can damn well do that.  Although I did rather covet the jar.  Maybe next week as a treat...

Over the next few months I will keep track of my adherence to Operation Happy Guts and my moods and food intake.  We'll see how it goes.

(With luck, Operation Happy Guts will coincide with Operation Get The Baby To Stay The Fuck Asleep and I won't be simultaneously battling sleep deprivation AND all the rest of the crap life deals out.  But even if the sleep deprivation continues, I think that improving the situation in The Interior will improve the situation overall.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Food relationships

I hear the phrase "my relationship with food" a lot.  Usually, it's in the context of "fixing my relationship with food" or something similar - undergoing some kind of mental healing so that one can enjoy food without overindulging and gaining excess body mass, or actually enjoy eating without feeling guilt, or something along those lines. (Usually the word "moderation" comes into it somewhere.)  I've gone through those phases, too - the attractive thinking that the problem isn't the food, it's me, I just have to "correct" my thinking and become fully in love with myself and accept myself and de-stress and whatever and magically I will eat appropriate portions all the time and enjoy food an appropriate amount.

The thing is, food isn't a monolithic, homogenous thing any more than people are.  You would never talk about your relationship with people in general - you have relationships with individual people.  Likewise, you have relationships with animals that differ from subject to subject (I really hope you don't have the same relationship with your dog as with the spider in your drain, the cougar in the woods or the deer in your back yard), relationships with different kinds of music, relationships with your clothes, even relationships with different vehicles, kitchen utensils, computers... the list goes on.  In every other aspect of our lives, we accept that there are individuals within groups of items and that our relationships with those items are based more on the individual than the group.

So why the homogenous "food"?  Why the pressure to have the same relationship with a bag of potato chips as with a nice green salad?

I have a very different relationship with a steak or a pork chop than I do with a plate of cookies.  They both look and smell delicious.  But when I eat the steak, I can stop when I'm full and save the rest of it for lunch tomorrow.  (Thinly sliced steak on salad... mmmmm)  The cookies? Not so much.  I know they will be just as delicious tomorrow, but somehow I would rather eat until I feel sick than leave them.

And you know what?  I'm ok with this.  It doesn't mean that I have underlying psychological issues.  It doesn't mean I'm broken, any more than if you're in a relationship with a guy who is super hot in bed but a jerk everywhere else, that there's something wrong with YOU when he's mean to you and you cry.  YOU are the normal one, HE is the jerk.  Likewise, I am a normal person, and cookies are jerks.  Delicious jerks, but I'm not going to crawl back into bed with them just because they're awesome that way.

Now, in the same way that not everyone is susceptible to getting into romantic relationships with jerks, not everyone is susceptible to to cookie jerks (or potato chip bastards, or chocolate bar meanies).  (Some of my ex-boyfriends now having seemingly completely functional relationships with other people indicate that "jerk" is an entirely subjective term, too.)

But if you regularly eat too much - if you finish most of your meals stuffed, rather than full, if you find empty bags of snacks beside you and you feel yucky (or alternately, you go look for more in the cupboard), if you eat when you're not hungry because someone left something yummy lying around, you probably have some unhealthy food relationships in your life.  And like unhealthy people relationships that affect the healthy relationships you do have, unhealthy food relationships affect the healthy (or potentially healthy) relationships you have with other foods.

That's all pretty inevitable in today's foodscape.  There's packaged crap everywhere, and many of us (myself included) are perfectly capable of crafting our own little jerk-asses in our own kitchens.  Some of us have families who can get along fine with cookies, but who consume the friendly, kind and healthy beef jerky we make far, far too quickly unless we hide it behind the booze or at the back of the fridge.

Here's the thing.  If you're *really* healthy - like, you're at a weight that works really well for you, you can do everything you want to do, physically, and you don't have any conditions typically associated with abnormal reactions to food, like eczema, bad acne, extreme seasonal allergies, asthma, type 2 diabetes, loads of cavities, persistent infections, etc. and you can manage your food jerks, then ignore all this.  Otherwise, in the same way that you owe it to yourself to ditch a partner who makes you feel sad or angry or like shit all the time, you owe it to yourself to ditch foods that do the same thing.  It's not you, it's them.  There is NOTHING wrong with getting rid of foods that don't work for you, any more than there's anything wrong with freecycling that toaster that you can never ever set right.  It just didn't work for you.

We have the luxury of having the broadest selection of foodstuffs available to us at any point in history.  This doesn't mean we HAVE to eat all of them.  Some of them mess with your brain, and that's not YOUR fault.  Just don't eat them.  There are plenty of other foods to eat.

I just finished reading a really good book that outlines how to really "fix" your multiple relationships with foods - it's essentially a pretty lenient elimination diet, focusing on typical culprits and explaining the mechanisms by which they can (not necessarily DO) mess with your brain and your body, but goes on to reintroduce foods to see how they interact with you.  The book is called "It Starts With Food" and does a good job of pointing out that there are wide groups of foods that are problematic for large numbers of people, but that everyone reacts differently to stuff and it's worth it to figure these things out for yourself.   It's a good read, well-written and organized.  I highly recommend it if you're not entirely happy with your relationships with foods.  Yes, it means dropping some foods from your diet for a while, but if they're really ok for you, they'll be there when you're done.  It's 30 days, and it's totally worth it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

"Yuppiefied" meat

Yesterday I was cruising through the health and fitness blogs and came across a blog written by an M.D. on the use of the Paleo (or Paleoesque) diet for treating diabetes.  This doctor is pretty much all for this, but he trots this out as a description of Paleo eating:
"Fresh, minimally processed food.  Meat (lean or not? supermarket vs yuppiefied?),..."

I've seen this appellation before, but never in a pro-paleo context.   Yuppiefied??? 

What he's referring to is meat that's raised in an ethical, biologically appropriate manner.  And frankly I find it horrifying not only that this is the norm - I've known that for a long time - but that attempts to provide meat in such a fashion are belittled and designated elitist and equated with buying a Range Rover instead of a Toyota.  By people who should know better.

Industrial meat production should be criminalized.  Yeah, it'll make meat more expensive.  Oh noes people might have to eat ALL the bits instead of just the steaks!!! Oh noes no more 12 oz chunks of meat on a plate!!!! I am all for meat consumption, but most people simply eat too much.  And yeah, it'll wipe out a massive market for subsidized grain.  Bummer that.  Maybe we could grow actual food on all that land previously occupied by heavily fertilized grain monocrops - after we restore it by sensible rotational grazing for a few years to rebuild the soil.  Hey, let's stop those stupid grain subsidies, too - subsidize VEGETABLES - you know, those things that are actually good for people to eat? 

It really, really bothers me that the food system is SO messed up that even people who know better consider decent-quality food to be not only less affordable but less necessary.  It's disturbing because everyone who cares about food, nutrition and health ought to care a LOT about how food is produced and distributed, and how food policy is made.  Accepting the status quo - that quality meat is only accessible by those with the economic means and social connections to procure it - doesn't help anyone.  Millions of people are suffering from calorie surpluses and nutrient deficiencies and doctors of all people ought not to be labeling a potential solution as "yuppiefied", and those who can and do choose to spend their money on quality meat rather than supermarket swill need not be belittled for making that choice.

And honestly - the price difference between the pasture-raised meat in my freezer and the stuff that Costco churns out is not that great.  I need to do some actual comparisons, but my suspicion is that the difference would turn out to be, on a monthly basis with MODEST meat consumption, approximately the same as what it costs for full cable TV service.  Priorities, people, priorities.  I don't wanna hear about how you can't afford good meat if you've got cable TV.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Musings on the dairy farm

This is going to be a bit of a ramble.  Sorry, I don't have any real recipes to post at the moment. 

I've started working a few days a week at the farm that hosts our cowshare. (In case you're unfamiliar with it, a cowshare is shared ownership of one or more cows.  This is mostly to get around the fact that it's illegal to buy or sell raw milk in Canada.  You may, however, drink the milk straight from your own cow - so if you want raw milk, you have to own a cow.  Since cows tend to produce far more milk than one family needs, it makes sense to share cows among a few families.  Thus, we own a few bits of 3 cows, and we share them with 20 or so other families.  We get a gallon of milk a week.  As we're not heavy milk drinkers, that's plenty for tea, kefir and the odd warm milk and honey before bed.)

I really like the farm work.  I love the cows, of course - they have interesting personalities and are gentle and peaceable creatures.  But more than that, I love the rhythm of the days.  Wake up, have a nibble and start work right away, work for a few hours and take a break for socializing, coffee and a bite to eat.  Go back to work then stop for a communal lunch.  Post-lunch is for resting, puttering work, personal projects, time with the kiddo.  Then it's time for dinner.  After dinner, more work! Cows need milking twice a day, at more or less twelve hour intervals.  Then a bit of reading to wind down, then bed.  Days at the farm are full but not hectic - there's a measured pace to everything (you can't rush a cow, or heat milk too quickly for cheese or yogurt), an order to everything, and constant seasonal change amid a structure of reassuring sameness. 

Ginger and Nell, the two purebred Jerseys.
While we were out this week, the second cow had her calf.  The calving was uncomplicated and smooth, and happened right after the morning milking.  Rowan, my daughter, got to see the new calf still all slimy, before it even managed to stand up.  We all watched as the new calf took her first wobbly steps and found her mama's teats.  It was lovely.
Canela with her new calf
The next day, the calf was to be separated from her mother.  As a mother, my heart hurts for both the cow and calf.  But as someone who has been around these cows for years and who has read a great deal about dairying and talked to many people involved in it, I understand the necessity.  Calves grow quickly and will consume more milk than they need - dairy cows being bred to produce far more than is "natural".  This particular cow, Canela, is half Hereford (beef cattle) and half Jersey.  She carries the genes for producing vast quantities of rich milk, and the genes for fast, heavy growth.  The herd administrators kept her first calf with her, hoping she'd be able to foster the other calves as well.  No such luck - she pushed them off and wouldn't let them suckle.  HER calf, on the other hand, grew so fast and so big that there was concern for her health.  Canela's teats fared poorly, with the calf favouring one side, the other became infected. She's still a bit lopsided from the ordeal.

It's risky, keeping a dairy cow (or even a cow with dairy genes) and her calf together, so they're separated for good reasons - not only because of too-fast growth for the calf, but if you're trying to milk as well, the machine, hand AND calf mouth all together are really hard on the teats.  But cows are mammals, like us, and they have instincts and feelings about their offspring.  Canela is probably extremely sad, pissed off, and angry right now.  She will get over it quickly, within a few days, but the emotions and stress are indisputably there.  Most people don't think about this, when they drink milk.  It's considered food appropriate for most vegetarians (vegans aside) as it's produced without loss of life.  Except that's not strictly true, either.  Cows need to calve in order to produce milk, but the calf is essentially a by-product. Canela's calf will live until November, when the grass stops growing, and then she will be slaughtered and butchered and eaten with gratitude.  Calves in commercial dairying operations are not so lucky.  Some are slaughtered as veal, some are raised for beef.  Few will have the luxury of as much pasture as they want, individual care and attention, and even a name as the calves born at our farm will.

For me, I have no reservations about keeping dairy cows the way we do, breeding them, taking away their babies and drinking their milk.  It sounds heinous, to be sure.  But we're responsible for these beings, and in the form in which they exist, this is what is best for them.  They aren't a product of nature or God - they're a product of human ingenuity and an unspoken pact our progenitors made with theirs.  We give them protection, food, freedom from disease and - in the case of our cows - a long, healthy, frankly pampered life.  We also ensure that some of their genes survive, by keeping the best of their offspring.  In return, we ask for their milk and their less-perfect offspring.  From a cow's perspective, it's probably a fair deal.  Left to their own devices, dairy cows as a subspecies wouldn't survive.  Our ancestors, probably out of necessity, bred creatures who simply produce too much milk.  It's up to us to treat those creatures as well as we can, make them comfortable, wanted and useful, and be grateful for them.  The same is true for nearly all our domestic animals, it's just the details of their keeping that differ.

I can understand not wanting to partake of dairy products once you comprehend exactly what goes into their production.  Indeed, large commercial dairies are far crueler and less healthy for the cows.  I'm not condoning them.  But I would hate to see a world in which a partnership like we have with dairy cows had vanished.  It's not an easy relationship, and it certainly raises some ethical questions.  It's that unease that makes the relationship worthwhile, I think.  The ability to shape our environment - all of it, plants, landscape, animals - and turn almost anything into a tool, is what makes us human.  It's what we are.  Using dairy cows is only slightly different than using vast tracts of land for a single crop, using a net to catch lots of fish at once, subverting entire ecosystems to grow rice, or any other activity of food production.  There are no humans anywhere who don't alter and pervert natural processes, simply to live. The first human to choose which wolf pup to keep and the first human to pull out one plant to give another more room to grow, put us on this path. The right and wrong of that isn't as important as simply being conscious and aware of it, and to keep our part of the bargain in mind. (I'm not sure commercial dairying operations do that. Those cows don't exactly have long lives free of disease.)

Being part of a small-scale dairying operation forces me to face head-on some of the ramifications of being human, and for that I am gratefully uncomfortable.  It's a discomfort I can live with.  I don't think I could say the same if I were working at a large-scale commercial dairy... or, for that matter, a large-scale technology firm that used resources without any sense of a compact or agreement with their sources, and was only obliged to make more money every year than the year before it... but that's a whole 'nother article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Actually very tasty grain-free cookies

I had lunch with a friend the other day and she mentioned that she'd started making vegetable cookies for her kids.  I think my response was along the lines of "And they eat them?" but when she described them I realized that they were actually a really good idea - largely sweet potato, with some non-grain starch, a small amount of sweetener, spices, and a binder.  I had some sweet potatoes lurking in my cupboard so I gave it a whirl.  (This friend is somewhat like me - "There's no recipe, it's more of a method...")

The first batch was... well, let's use the term "experimental" rather than "failure".  My child actually liked them though, so I set about improving them and I think I've hit on a grain-free treat that's worth eating.  (Unlike, for example, the gluten-free hamburger buns that have surfaced at some of the burger bars in town.  Those are vile, and I'd rather skip the bun entirely or just take the grain bloat for the day.)

Here, then, are cookies that are not terribly unhealthy.  They won't make you thin, and they're probably not super-awesome for you if you're diabetic, but they won't do your kids any harm unless they eat them right before dinner and spoil their appetites.

3 small-med sweet potatoes or yams, cooked, peeled and mashed.  (Bake or microwave, don't steam or boil)
1 3/4 cups almond meal
1/2 cup potato starch
1/3 cup honey (you could use less)
1/2 cup butter
1 large egg
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or more if it's been in your cupboard for a while - don't skimp on it)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
dash vanilla extract
pinch salt

Cream butter & honey together.  Add egg, vanilla, spice and salt and mix thoroughly.  Add almond meal, potato starch and baking powder & soda and mix well.  Add sweet potatoes and mix until combined.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes, then drop in spoonfuls onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for about 25 minutes at 350F (or until browned a bit and obviously done.)  Makes somewhere between 1 and 2 dozen cookies depending on how big they are.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Haggis: ach, aye laddie!

I am not Scottish, nor do I have any but extremely distant ancestors who were remotely Scottish.  However, I somehow felt obligated to buy a haggis for Robbie Burns day.  I've had haggis before - in Scotland, no less - as part of a "full Scottish breakfast" at a B&B.  I recalled liking it, but I couldn't exactly remember what it was like.

So, I picked up a haggis from the Oak Bay Butcher (and no, you don't get a discount for ordering with a Scottish accent and I don't think Mike really appreciated being called "laddie") and prepared it as wee Mike advised, by steaming it for about 45 minutes.  The sheep stomach part of it bailed out of the whole deal and I was left with a vaguely stomach-shaped ball of meaty goo that smelled like someone's moldy old sofa.

Despite the unappetizing appearance, I'd already prepared the neeps & tatties so onto the plate it all went.  And you know what? It was delicious.  The texture was reminiscent of cotechino - that faintly gluey texture that's oddly satisfying.  I could totally see how if you were out on the moors all day, chasing sheep around in the rain, and you came home to a steaming plate of haggis, you would think it was the best stuff in the world (and not just for the revenge-on-the-sheep facet of it, either.) 

My tummy wasn't too happy with me afterwards - the significant oatmeal component of the haggis not being very Sarah-friendly - but haggis is a once-a-year food and dammit, I'm going to enjoy it.  I'm gonna slice me some leftover bits on Saturday and have a full Scottish breakfast, aye.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Goals, plus fun fridge finds

This week has been really busy, so this post won't be as in-depth as maybe it should be.

I'm leaning more towards basic Paleo eating rather than consciously low-rewarding it at the moment, because as the new year approached and I started thinking "what do I want to improve in my life" I realized I wanted to feel more competent and confident in my physical capabilities.  And while I've lifted weights for years and have more strength than many women, even some larger than me, I'm still not that physically capable, objectively speaking.  Let's face it - I'm barely five feet tall. While *I* might think a 140 lb deadlift is pretty freakin' awesome, realistically, that's not going to help much in, say, an emergency situation where human bodies need to be moved or something.  Or if I finally get my shit together and get my FAC and my hunting license and go get some large deer or (preferably) elk or bear.  Also, while my ability to run is nowhere near as absent as I was led to believe as a child (I now think that my sucky running skills when I was 10 were more due to crappy footwear than ability), I still have a hard time running a 5K in less than about 35-40 minutes.  My completely arbitrary feeling on this is that most people between the ages of 12 and 50 ought to be able to run 10 kilometers more or less comfortably (ie, not be dying at the end) and in about an hour. 

So my goals, therefore, are to be able to lift something useful (I'm picking Stirling here, because it's not a stretch to envision a "worst-case" scenario in which during an earthquake, he gets clobbered by flying debris in the kitchen and loses consciousness) and carry it up to the third floor of our house.  Stirling currently weighs somewhere in the neighbourhood of 180 lbs, I think.  I also want to be able to run 10K in less than an hour, without incurring any of the usual runner's ailments while training, such as shin splints, wonky knees, foot problems, etc. - which means lots of long, slow slow jogs, and sprints, rather than just bashing 10K over the head until it submits. Because I'm pretty sure I'd submit first.

Given all that - and I've already ramped up the strength training to a heavier-load, lower-reps, more sets kinda deal - dropping my food intake a lot seems a bit stupid.  Realistically, my weight is not currently problematic, health-wise.  Weight is now a cosmetic issue, and while I don't think that's unimportant, I'm making a conscious choice to focus on ability rather than appearance.

(For the record, for people interested in that sort of thing, I weigh about 135 lbs.  Actually, probably a bit more right now, but I haven't been able to locate the scale since I rearranged stuff in the room in which it was located so that'll have to do for now.  My BMI is in that range that people quote as being "overweight" but which actual statistics show results in longer lifespan and fewer health problems - for women. I look a bit chunky, but healthy.  I'm ok with that, although the fashion-conscious side of me would like me to be able to wear a wider range of clothing styles.)

I've still been eating my stew-o-blandness, although now that the batch I made is finished, I think I'll go back to eating with the family for dinners for a bit because I have more (paid) work than usual at the moment and it's just easier.  The fish-and-greens salads are actually really nice for lunch, but as I generally need to eat early and have not been so diligent about actually eating breakfast, I have needed afternoon snacks, and these have been mostly liverwurst on veggies.  There is a great charcuterie in town that makes lovely liverwurst and I want him to keep on making lovely liverwurst so I feel obligated to buy it.  You should too, it's delightful.  And it's liver!

I also found - as the title of this post indicates - treats in the back of my fridge.  Fermented green beans!  No, fermented in a GOOD way.  You know, lactofermented, like kosher pickles.  I have been cutting them up and putting them in my salads, and they're just like capers only they taste good and go really well with sardines.  I will be sad when they are gone.  Experience has shown me that fermented vegetables only work really, really well when the veggies are super-fresh - and the green beans available "fresh" now are just not.  I could do some carrots, I suppose - I just picked up a few bunches from Madrona and they are very crisp, sweet and yummy.   Anyway the date on these pickled beans (aren't I smart, labeling things? I wish I did that more) is from mid-July.  Gotta love lactofermentation!