Sunday, June 28, 2015

A word of caution

The Guardian ran an article this weekend about the "the new breed of wellness bloggers" and how much they know about food. 
There are a lot of questions the article poses about the "young, photogenic, big on Instagram" mainly around what are their actual qualifications around being able to give nutritional advice. 

I must confess I do read and follow a number of those blogs who get a mention in the article, however I equally tend to stick to my own common sense. 
When it comes to common sense I think the classical Unhappy Meals essay by Michael Pollen is as good as it will ever get. (This blog gets its name partially influenced by the same article). It is a long essay which gives the simple answer to what should people eat to stay in optimum health - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." 
I love the simplicity of it - food. Not food like substances. I have already written about how we become what we eat and how important small changes are.  

I am convinced that before trusting any piece of information you should first look what the source is - is there any evidence for what this person is saying, who are they, what is their experience. It is like the news - the BBC and the Daily Mail both love the immigration subject, but each of them looks at it from different perspectives. And perspective is as just as important when you make food choices or look for a nutritional advice. 

I am not going to tell you that aspartame causes cancer, because cancer is caused by a huge combination of factors. But what I can tell you is that the body has no idea what to do with all those ready made neurotransmitters (aspartame is 40% aspartic acid which is an important neurotransmitter which the body synthesises, but just like everything else in the body we only make as much or as little as we need). It is a chemical and daily use of chemicals in our diet and on our skin may be causing a long term damage we don't yet fully understand. 

I enrolled into my nutrition course after I experimented for 6 months on myself and saw how much the right combination of food and exercise had an impact on my mood, sleep, the way I look. It worked for me but it required a number of things which someone else might not have been ready to give up or do. 

Start small, experiment, cook, move often, be more mindful about where your food comes from and what's in it and I am sure over time you will discover what works and what doesn't for you. And if it is vegan, gluten free, lactose free, so be it, but it should never come at the expense of your health. 

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Small changes that make a big difference - Better snacks

I may sound like I am repeating myself here. But I thought it might be helpful to share some of the 'small things' I do that help me feel better. I believe the Pareto principle works just as well in nutrition as with everything else.

Better snacks

If you are anything like me at 3 pm you would be going through your desk drawer or looking around to see if any of your colleagues might have a piece of chocolate lying around.
Recently I have discovered almond butter. No, I didn't really discover it but I have found out how totally amazingly creamy that stuff is. At 3 pm almond butter on a piece of apple keeps me full and happy well into dinner time. Because it combines high-fibre carbs like an apple with protein that keep you fuller for longer - like almond butter. Or even just almonds, preferably raw and ideally soaked (more on soaking nuts below) overnight.

So what are other things that help me get through the afternoon craving for sugar?

Nuts, any sort of nuts. 

The rule of thumb is to actually only eat a handful. I avoid roasted, salted, chocolate covered etc. and always buy raw. Buying in bulk saves loads of money in the long run. Ideally I try and soak the nuts overnight - put in a bowl, cover with water with a pinch of salt. In the morning rinse thoroughly, wrap in a paper towel, put into a small container in my bag and with an apple or banana I have a snack!

Walnuts are a particular favourite of mine. Very high in Omega 3 fats and zinc which are essential for good skin health and particularly good if you are an acne sufferer, after soaking they lose their bitterness and become sweet and plump just like in late summer when they fall off the tree.

So what does soaking do? Nuts contain enzymes which inhibit their ability to sprout until they find favourable conditions - moisture and heat. Soaking the nuts breaks down those enzymes and allows them to be better absorbed in the body.

Energy balls. There are plenty of recipes on the internet - I mix one cup of dates (remember to remove the pits) with 2 cups of whatever nuts I have (presoaked walnuts, almonds, cashews, etc) + pumpkin and sunflower seeds + flaxseed + maca, cocoa powder and a bit of coconut oil if it all seems too dry. I don’t have a food processor, so use the grind attachment of my old Philips blender. It might be easier to grind the nuts and flaxseed separately before mixing with the dates to form balls. These will keep in the fridge in a plastic covered tub for a good week.

A walk

Now I know a walk is by no way a snack but you will be amazed how much getting out and about for 10 minutes can boost your energy and make you feel better. Put your coat on, leave your phone (or take it with you if it counts your steps like mine does) and just go out for a walk around the block. If you make sure you avoid the bakery and the coffee shop on the corner, I promise you by the time you are back to your desk you would have forgotten you wanted a snack. Have a cup of tea instead (green, rooibos, mint, not the black stuff with milk).The extra oxygen will support circulation and will ultimately boost your metabolism and mood.

I agree, it does take a bit or planning and preparation - remembering to put the nuts into your bag, however, whenever you forget to pick some there is the added benefit of having to walk to Holland & Barrett or the nearest supermarket to pick up some! So it is a win-win anyways!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The biggest argument to start making small changes now

A very simple truth hit home recently – you are what you eat.

Our bodies are made of cells which with a few exceptions continuously die off and are replaced by other cells – skin, liver, bones, blood all continuously get replaced. Now those vital organs are build of tissue which is build of cells which in return are 96% made of oxygen (accounts for about 65% of your total body mass), carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. In order for those cells to continue doing the right thing they need the right basic elements – and this is what our digestion does – it breaks down what we eat into those basic elements which then can be carried to those cells so that they can be rebuild and continue working together doing their thing.
The key here is basic elements which the body can recognise and can use as building blocks for new cells.

Now think about the ingredients of your body lotion. Or your ready meal, or your store bought low calorie lunch. What is present in all of those things is highly processed ingredients – molecules which have been altered to the point where the body does not recognise them any more. So what you end up doing is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. You are trying to build a house with very poor building material – a bit like the three little pigs.
We continue wondering why we can’t lose weight, or why our skin is not looking great. It is very simple – we become what we eat. And this is the difference why people experience profound change in their bodies once they start eating wholesome, fresh, real food. That supermarket whole meal bread with 10 different ingredients and low-calorie spread will be your hair, nails, bones tomorrow.
I am as guilty as everyone else when it comes to eating sugar. And I am certainly not the one to ditch everything in one go. But start making small changes - read the labels, start bringing lunch to work twice a week (those weekend leftovers make a great Monday lunch), make your own dressings for your salad at home, cut down the sugary snacks and drinks.

So when you are reaching out for something in the supermarket next time – read the label and ask yourself – do I want to be made of E numbers or do I want to give my body high quality building material. I am sure the low-calorie spread will very quickly be put away and you will reach out for something wholesome with ingredients which you recognise and know what they mean.

Monday, April 06, 2015

40 vegan days

Lent finished yesterday and with it my experiment of going vegan. I can’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t too difficult either. I wasn’t eating much dairy or meat anyways, however eggs had to go as well. And they were the hardest to give up! I would wake up on a Sunday morning, go for a run and the only thing I could think of was eggs. Fried, poached, in shakshuka, over easy. EGGS! I would want to bake something and guess what - it needed eggs (of course you can substitute with bananas but I couldn’t be bothered). I unfortunately over compensated the lack of eggs and white cheese with bread. I guess my brain went - well, I can’t eat eggs let’s comfort myself with an extra slice of that wonderful-with-big-holes-and-amazing-crust Bread Ahead white sourdough.

So what did I eat?

Breakfast at the beginning was mainly smoothies - banana, avocado, spinach, seeds, cacao - chocolaty and comforting. But this being the UK and lent in February - March I needed something warm and much more substantial. This and slightly freaking out about getting enough protein. After spending way too much on Pret’s amazing five grain gluten and dairy free porridge I realised I better buy a thermos and start making this at home. So this is how I started eating buckwheat. And amaranth. The concoction is pretty much - one part buckwheat, one part amaranth, one part quinoa, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax whatever you have). And the best bits - almond milk, coconut oil, almond butter and honey make this the most creamy, comforting wonderful porridge!
Lunches were mostly lentils. I owe much to lentils- they got me through university - I love them! Green, yellow, brown, small, big, the Indian way, the Bulgarian way, the lazy way. I can get dhal on the table in 20 minutes - from peeling and chopping the ginger to sitting down to a comforting steaming bowl of goodness! I would also bring a green salad - leaves, radishes, parsley (the more the better) and humus with a few olives (I love their saltiness). If I got bored of the lentils I would go for beans, or a shakshuka (without the eggs but lot’s of bread on the side).

And a guilty pleasure - onion bhajis. I think I have now eaten so many that even the thought of them gives me heartburn. Oh, and I turned one kilo of chickpeas into falafels. Now that’s A LOT of falafel. And it was amazing - but the combination of half cooked and deep fried chickpeas was certainly more than my stomach could handle.

I don’t eat much dinner anyways but I like having a pot of tea while studying or watching TV and that pot of tea came along with a big spoon of almond butter mixed with cacao. So comforting and such a guilty pleasure.
Going out was a whole new experience and being vegan probably saved me some money - there is a great Indian restaurant called Sagar in Covent Garden - it is pure vegetarian (their words not mine - no mushrooms or eggs) and they do tons of vegan dishes as well (no ghee or milk).
This is my wonderful friend Johanna modelling their giant dosa!

So why did I do it then? The Orthodox church has two big lents - one before Easter (the Great lent - the longest and hardest) and one before Christmas (slightly shorter and you are allowed fish a couple of times). I am not the particularly religious type - maybe due to the fact that you can’t really understand what they half sing half say in Bulgarian churches. I take the spiritual side of things. For me Easter is about having faith and believing in whatever works for you - yourself, miracles, God, nature. It is the time for new beginnings. So lent is not only about giving up food and a way of cleansing your body - the Orthodox church teaches it is also time to “cleanse” your soul as well, it is time for humility and forgiveness. So no self-bashing and loathing, no getting angry and complaining, none of that. Now this was difficult. While I have no issues controlling what goes into my body,  what goes into my head is a whole other story. But I suppose that takes more time as well. I did it as an experiment - both to see what effect being vegan might have on my body, but also what being more mindful can do to my everyday life.

Overall it was a great experience trying new things. I haven’t put any weight on (despite all the bread) but perhaps that is also attributed to the fact I wasn’t eating many sweets either (they all have dairy or eggs!). I have become much more aware of what goes into my head, when I start slipping into the same thinking patterns or interpreting situations in a way that might not really reflect the reality. Oh, and those scrambled eggs on toast on Easter Sunday tasted so, so, so good!