Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy Cows: The Case for Grass-Fed Beef

      As part of my endeavor to really start cleaning up my diet, I've recently made the switch from regular, grain-fed beef to the better-for-you, organic, grass-fed kind. I know it's healthy because everyone tells me it is, and right now it seems to be a pretty big thing. I mean, who doesn't love a happy cow?

     But what is the real deal with grass-fed beef, anyway?

    Well, for one, it's lean, containing significantly less fat and saturated fat than regular beef.  In fact, it can contain as little fat as a piece of skinless chicken. This means it's also lower in calories, which is great news for steak-lovers who are trying to lose weight. Eat a 6oz portion of grass-fed beef instead of a 6oz portion of grain-fed beef and you will save yourself around 100 calories. Beef this lean has even been shown to help reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

     Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3's than grain-fed beef, which are necessary for many of your heart and brain functions, in addition to reducing inflammation. It's important to note that grass-fed beef contains a more ideal balance of omega-6's and omega-3's than grain-fed beef (1:1 for grass-fed vs. 6:1 for grain-fed).

     So what does that mean?

     Well, back in the day (before the Agricultural Revolution, 40,000+ years ago), our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved with a diet that with an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of around 1:1. This continued for quite awhile (a reeeeeally long while), until about roughly 150 years ago when the balance of these fatty acids was thrown completely out of whack. The typical modern Western diet often shows an omega-6/omega-3 profile closer to 10-20:1, rather than the more ideal 1-4:1. Now, while omega-6's are necessary for a lot of body functions, a grossly unbalanced omega-3/omega-6 ratio is a recipe for a plethora of autoimmune diseases, as certain omega-6's work inside the body promoting inflammation. Some of that inflammation is good, and a vital part of the body's ability to heal and repair itself.  However, too much inflammation is bad news. Anti-inflammatory omega-3's keep the omega-6's in check, and when in balance, they work together to prevent heart disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and inflammatory diseases like Crohn's and psoriasis, other autoimmune diseases, and cancer. (If you really want to dig into all of this, here is the article, entitled "Omega-3/Omega-6 Essential Fatty Acid Ratio and Chronic Diseases.")

     But, wait! There's more!

    -Grass-fed beef also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another fatty acid, which has also been shown to reduce cancer risk in humans. In laboratory animals, diets with CLA levels as little as .05% reduced the total number of mammary tumors by 32%. The results are similar with humans: One study found that women with higher levels of CLA in their diet had a 60% lower chance of breast cancer than women who weren't getting as much. CLA has also been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, helping to reverse the symptoms of artherosclerosis, in addition to staving off the onset of diabetes. It also works to reduce adipose (fat) tissue and increase lean muscle mass.  So how much CLA does grass-fed beef contain? Roughly 2-4x the amount found in grain-fed beef. (This information can all be found this very good article about the enhanced nutrient content of grass-fed beef.)

     -Grass-fed beef also has more:
  •  Beta-Carotene - Antioxidant vitamin that is needed for healthy vision, bone growth, skin health, and the production of white blood cells. Grass-fed beef contains about 2x as much beta-carotene as grain-fed beef.
  • Vitamin E - Another powerful antioxidant vitamin that protects cells from free radicals, helping to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, and inflammatory diseases. Grass fed beef contains about 3x the amount as grain-fed beef.
       Plus! It also contains more:
      (Am I starting to sound like an infomercial yet?)
  • Vitamin C - Another powerful antioxidant vitamin needed to help grow and heal all parts of the body. Also helps the body absorb iron, which is needed to make red blood cells.
  • B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin (good for energy, forming red blood cells), calcium (good for strong bones/teeth), potassium (electrolyte balance), and magnesium (muscle, nerve, and heart function, supports healthy immune system, and bone strength).

     Aside from all of the nutritional benefits, there's another, much darker side to this situation. 

     Look, I enjoy eating animals as much as any other meat-lover..but I don't want to eat some miserable, stressed out, sad cow that was pretty much tortured its entire life, either. If you watch movies like Food, Inc. (which can be watched for free here until April 30th), or even the short, flash cartoon "The Meatrix," you get a better idea of what some of these animals are put through before they show up on your plate. Aside from the terrible living conditions, common "by-product feed-stuffs" can be anything from garbage to candy..to parts from other dead cows and chicken poop. Ever heard of Mad Cow Disease? Yeah. Well, it's spread when a cow eats the brain or bone meal from a dead cow with this disease. It can then pass it on to humans.

     Grain-feeding also promotes the growth of E. coli in cattle, another super fun (horrible) thing that they can pass onto us.  Grass-fed cows are far less likely to be stricken with this dirty poop disease.

    Not to mention the fact that grass-fed cows spend their lives hanging out in a field, munching on grass, the way nature intended.

   Recently, Time Magazine reported that eating grass-fed beef might even be able to help with the climate change and global warming. They even show a neat pictorial representation of the differences in environmental impact with grain-fed and grass-fed cows, found here.

    Add to ALL of this the amount of  the hormones and antibiotics that grain-fed cows are pumped full of (the list goes on and on), which get stored in that awesome marbling that everyone loves, it just doesn't make much sense to continue eating grain-fed meat.

    Still want to know more?

    In addition to the links above, here are some excellent sources I used to find most of this info:

 Annnd..when all else fails, there's always Google Scholar.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Paleo for Dummies - Part I: Meal Building

     A lot of people are turned off by the idea of Paleo eating because it seems like too much work. No more instant meals from a box, frozen dinner entrees, and the ease of just hitting the drive thru on the way home from work. But it's really not as hard as it may seem to throw easy meals together in a very short amount of time.  Personally, I don't mind spending a little extra time in the kitchen on my nights off..but I realize that isn't everyone's cup of tea.  So here is the easy formula for quick Paleo meals.

MEAT + VEGETABLE + FAT + HERB/SPICE = Happy Caveman/Cavewoman.

It's really that simple. The phrase 'so easy, a caveman could do it,' comes to mind.

   So what are your options?
   Well, the possibilities are pretty limitless.

First, Decide on a Protein:
     As often as possible, choose high-quality sources like whole eggs, grass-fed beef, chicken and meats that aren't treated with added hormones/antibiotics, as well as wild-caught seafood. If you like bacon (who doesn't?), try to opt for the uncured, all-natural kind.
Also, a lot of stores carry organic chicken sausages, which are minimally processed and have very few ingredients--they are about as close to Paleo as you're going to get in a sausage. Just be sure to read labels, as some varieties contain some added sugar.

Then, pick a vegetable (or two, or three) -
     Some good choices are broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens, peppers, onions, cabbage, asparagus, zucchini, squash, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and bok choy.
    Poor choices are white potatoes, corn, grean beans, carrots, peas, yams, and sweet potatoes (although it's worth noting that sweet potatoes/yams are a great post-workout recovery food).

     Don't be afraid to try out a vegetable you've never had before. Ever had sauteed swiss chard? How about roasted beets or fennel? Really--what's the worst that could happen? You won't like it? Keep food boredom at bay by experimenting with different things. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Or, instead of (or in addition to) vegetables, pick a fruit -
    Due to their high sugar content, fruit should be consumed in moderation.
    Some of the best choices are blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, and melons.
    Some good choices are apples, citrus, peaches, apricots, and peaches.
    Things like mango, papaya, pineapple, grapes, pears, bananas, and dried fruit should be eaten sparingly.

     Click here for a chart outlining the sugar content of different fruits.

    With fruits and vegetables, try to stick to whatever is in season. Guide to Pennsylvania's Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables will give you an idea when certain things are available in this region.

Then, decide which fat(s) you'd like to use:
-Olive oil, Avocado oil, Coconut oil, Macadamia Nut Oil, Palm Oil, Walnut oil, or Almond oil (Check out Mark Sisson's Definitive Guide to Oils for the nutrititional profiles of different oils, and which ones should be avoided.)
-Coconut butter
-Coconut milk
-Macadamia nuts, Almonds, Walnuts, Pecans, Brazil nuts, Hazelnuts, and Pistachios. Go for unsalted.

Now add some herbs and/or spices:
     Try to think of your spice rack as your own personal flavor arsenal. Stock up on things you like, and once again, don't be afraid to try new new things. Some of my favorites are cinnamon, garlic, ginger, ground black pepper, parsley, dill, oregano, rosemary, basil, cayenne pepper, ground mustard, and cumin, just name a few. Mrs. Dash also makes a bunch of different salt-free seasoning blends that takes all of the I-have-no-idea-what-goes-together guesswork out of the picture for you. When choosing a seasoning blend though, it's always better to opt for salt-free--that way, if you decide to add salt, you can control how much.

     It really doesn't get much easier than that!

    And it doesn't have to be terribly elaborate, either.

    A very basic meal would be a grilled chicken breast seasoned with cumin, garlic, and cayenne, with avocado slices on the side and steamed broccoli.

    Or, if you're in the mood for steak, simply season it with some ground black pepper and salt and then toss it on the grill. If you wanna get fancy, saute some beet greens and onions in some olive oil with a little bit of garlic. Personally, I'm a huge fan of simple stir-frying/sauteeing: it's fast, easy, and I can get a variety of different things all in one skillet, keeping me from being constantly entrenched in a mountain of single vegetable monotony.

   Want something with a slightly Asian flair? Take some peppers, bok choy, and scallions and stir-fry them with olive oil with a little bit of coconut aminos or Tamari (wheat-free soy sauce), as well as some ginger and garlic (can you tell I love garlic?). Add cooked chicken or shrimp and a dash of sesame oil to finish. Or top with crushed almonds for a bit of crunch. Broccoli slaw (which you can find with the salad mixes at the grocery store) is also really good prepared this way, and requires no chopping or cutting--a favorite for when I get home from work late and want something fast and filling.

    A breakfast-y option could be something like a chicken sausage and a couple of eggs, a cup of berries, and a handful of nuts/spoonful of nut butter. Or an omelette with diced chicken, peppers, and onions cooked in a teaspoon of avocado oil.

    Lunch could be some sort of chicken salad with mixed greens, a handful of blueberries and crushed nuts, with an oil and vinegar dressing.

    It's probably a good idea to shake yourself of the idea of certain foods being eaten for breakfast, certain foods for dinner, etc. There is nothing wrong with having salmon for breakfast and eggs for dinner. If convenience is key, just make whatever you have available.

    If you really don't have time during the week to cook, then you may want to set aside a a couple of hours (at the VERY most) where you can get most of your prepwork out of the way for the entire week. Cut up the vegetables you think you'll want and put them in ziploc bags in the fridge. Still too hard? Buy vegetables that are easy to cut, like asparagus, greens, or zucchini (because if you can't cut tear up some chard or cut a zucchini in less than a minute, then I'm afraid I can't help you).

     Grill or cook a couple different kinds of meat to have on hand as well. If you make 7 days worth of meat though, you may want to freeze a couple of portions so it doesn't go bad. If you like hard-boiled eggs, cook a dozen and keep them in the fridge for a quick snack. I like to to make a whole package of bacon and store the extra in a ziploc bag--it's good to crumble over vegetables, or just snack on when I am desperate for a salty fix.
     I've said this before, but the key to quick convenience meals is a well-stocked fridge/freezer. I almost always have frozen shrimp on hand--all I need to do is defrost them, and saute for a couple minutes, making a a little extra to serve them on a salad the next day. Actually, whatever you make for dinner, it's ALWAYS a good idea to make extra. Leftovers are your friend.

    Just don't make it harder than it needs to be!

     Once you get used to eating this way, it becomes second nature. Be patient--it may take a little trial and error at first, but believe me, it will pay off. It definitely, definitely gets easier! The average time I spend making dinner during the week is 15 minutes from start to finish, and it's never bland or boring.

     This is YOUR health here, you need to make it a priority--and understand that you're going to have to log a couple of hours in the kitchen along with your hours in the gym if you want to BE and PERFORM your best.

    Hopefully this helps a little. :)

    Come back soon for some more Paleo for Dummies action, including some tips for hunting and gathering at the grocery store, and help creating a Primal shopping list.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Fiesta In My Mouth and Everyone's Invited: Mango Avocado Salsa and Spanish Cauliflower Rice

So Cinco de Mayo is a few weeks away, and your friends may be having some kind of party. Wondering what tasty goodness you can bring along that your friends won't scoff at? Tired of being limited to gaucamole and tequila because you don't eat tortillas, corn, cheese, beans, or rice? Well, these recipes should quiet even the most Paleo-Resistant people, and will keep you full, satisfied, and not dejectedly longing for tacos all night.

I was feeling particularly experimental on Monday, so I tried out 3 new recipes I found online - all 100% Paleo. Two of them were most excellent, and one still needs a bit of tweaking before I'd consider it share-worthy. But in the meantime:

Spicy Chicken with Mango-Avocado Salsa and Spanish-ish Cauliflower Rice

Now I know I promised easy, effortless recipes, but these ones are well worth the time spent chopping. For me, there is something oddly aesthetic (and disturbingly domestic) about cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables. Yes, I'm weird like that.

The first recipe I found on Epicurious, which is actually a really good place to search for recipes, ideas, and inspiration. Many of the recipes are unintentionally Paleo, or can be easily modified. This salsa is good as a stand-alone dish, or can be used to top chicken, meat, or fish, and it's full of all those good fats everyone's always talking about. Personally, I can't wait to try this with mahi mahi:

Mango-Avocado Salsa

1 ripe mango, diced
1 tomato, diced
2 green onions, finely sliced
1/4 c. lime juice (about 2 1/2 limes)
1 jalapeno, mince
1 avocado, peeled, seeded, diced

  • Combine first 5 ingredients in bowl. (Can be made 3 hours ahead; refrigerate.)

  • Closer to serving time, stir in diced avocado and season to taste with salt and pepper. *Salt is not Paleo, so if you choose to use it here, be conservative.

The second recipe is my own creation, inspired from different recipes on the web: Spanish Cauliflower Rice. Cauliflower rice is just cauliflower chopped up in a food processor, the end product looking very much like, well, rice. Check it out:

1 cup of cauliflower rice is approximately 81 calories, 7g carb, 4g of fiber, not to mention 119% of your daily recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C (as opposed to 1 cup of white rice, which is 212 calories, 44g carbs, and less than 1g of fiber..oh. And 0% Vitamin C).

Since cauliflower is a very neutral-tasting vegetable, it just kindof absorbs whatever flavor you put with it. I've made it a few times already and have found that you can use it in place of rice in a lot of rice pilaf-type recipes. You just have to adjust cooking times. One cup of uncooked rice = 2 cups cauliflower rice.

To make it, place cauliflower in food processor and pulse until it looks like the picture above. Don't go too crazy or it'll look more like couscous. unless you want it to look like couscous, that is. Anyway, I use a blender, and just put a big handful of cauliflower in at a time. Scoop it out, repeat.

Then, put it in a dish with a lid, and stick it in the microwave for about 3 minutes. Do NOT add water, as this will turn it to mush. When it comes out will be slightly tender, but still kind of firm. You're going to cook it more in the skillet, so don't overdo it unless you're just going to eat it plain. I like to make extra and keep it in the fridge--it's very versatile and good for whipping up quick lunches and dinners.

Spanish-ish Cauliflower Rice

1/4 c. olive oil
1 1/2 small Vidalia onions, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 poblano pepper, chopped (you can just use standard green bell pepper if you want)
1 jalapeno pepper, minced (more if you want it spicy)
2 stalks of celery
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups of cauliflower rice
1/4 teas. ground black pepper
1 T cumin
1/2 teas. oregano
Salt to taste

  • Heat olive oil over medium heat, then add onions, peppers, and celery. Saute until soft, about 3 mins.
  • Add garlic, and cook for another minute while stirring, then add cauliflower and pepper, cumin, and oregano.
  • Cook until cauliflower rice is tender
Now, the chicken I made just turned out so-so. It was spicy and had an ok flavor, but didn't really go well with the mango salsa. The salsa has enough flavor on its own, and would probably pair up better with something with little or no seasoning on it.

Two out of three ain't bad though.

Also worth mentioning - If you're ok with the amount of prepwork involved, making quick, simple salsas are a good way to replace the condiments/commercial sauces for meat and fish. With a little bit of internet-search savvy, you can find a bazillion different salsa recipes that fit perfectly into the Paleo diet without having to adjust them at all. I'm definitely a fan, so look forward to more tasty salsas in the future.

Hasta la vista, baby.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Going Against the Grain: Links to Articles Written By People Who Know What They're Talking About

I get a lot of questions about my diet from people who want to know what is so bad about grains. These are typically people that are hip to the idea of 'evil, white, starchy carbs', but see no harm in consuming whole grain breads, pastas or cereals, brown rice, quinoa, or things like that. These are things that have been branded "healthy" time and time again, and people often stand awash with displeasure at the thought of living a grain-free existence because they've depended on these slow-digesting "good" carbs for energy for so long.

Well, listen. They aren't good carbs.
They're pretty much destroying your GI tract from the inside, leaving you susceptible to all kinds of modern maladies--ranging everywhere from acne to cancer.

I'm not going to pretend like I am an expert on the subject--as I've mentioned, I am neither a doctor or a scientist--however, I am capable of deductive reasoning, and to me, all of the ideas behind going grainless (provided in the links below) seem pretty solid. Plus, the difference in the way I've felt personally/performance-wise since going grain-free--that's all the proof I really need.

So, for some why's and how's behind why grains are like dirty old men who touch you in bad places, here are a couple of really good nutrition links that do a good job of explaining things so I don't have to:

Mark's Daily Apple - Why Grains are Unhealthy

Mark's Daily Apple - The Definitive Guide to Grains

Loren Cordain - Cereal Grains: Humanity's Double-Edged Sword (it's a bit longer and less basic, but a worthy read.)

Mind you, these are the essentials here. Grains-Are-Bad 101, if you will. If you're still hungry for more, those Resources links I provide to the right are..well. Really good resources. Robb Wolf's "The Paleolithic Solution" Webcasts answer a lot of questions - Definitely worth a listen. Also, Loren Cordain has a list of published research articles that cover a range of different topics relating to the Paleo Diet.

There are so many excellent reads and so much information, this stuff here is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig around a little. Be an active learner! The internet is a big place: Searching out info on Google Scholar should keep you busy for awhile if you're really interested in the really science-y stuff.

While you get busy feeding your brain, I'll get busy writing out a few recipes to help feed your belly. Come back for another update in the next day or so. :)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Meat and Greet

Hi there.

My name is Nicole and I am a former candy addict turned health food enthusiast.

I used to be the kind of chick who thought a good breakfast was six fat Tootsie Rolls and a can of Dr. Pepper. For the longest time, my diet was comprised mainly of four food groups: bread, cereal, candy, and pretzels. I felt like I was doing ok calorie-wise, but I felt tired and sluggish all the time. After I started getting into high intensity workouts, I realized this 'diet' of mine wasn't going to work any longer. I started learning about things like glycemic index, and began increasing my intake of vegetables, fats, and lean protein. After a lot of trial-and-errors with food, I found I felt my best without all the refined, processed junk--particularly the sugar.

It's been a long series of transitions omitting the bad stuff from my diet over the past couple of years, and it hasn't always been easy. At first it seemed impossible giving up grains and dairy, but now I hardly miss them. My stomach definitely doesn't.

I know that while I AM eating very healthy, there are still a few minor tweaks I can make to even further enhance my performance and the way I feel. I decided to create this blog to share my experiences converting more completely to the Paleo lifestyle.

I'm not a doctor, a dietition, or trained chef. I'm just a hungry girl with an appetite for meat, sound nutrition, and kitchen mayhem. I plan on posting recipes, links to good articles and other blogs (there are tons of great ones out there), and recounting some of my own day-to-day struggles and triumphs with food. I'm not perfect - definitely not a Paleo Nazi - but hopefully I can spread around some good information and help other people change the way they think about the things they eat.

So if you don't already know, what is Paleo, anyway?

Basically, it's a diet (lifestyle, really), based on what the earliest hunter/gatherer human ancestors ate. Meat, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruits, and nuts was what they would've had on their plates. If they had plates.
Which they probably didn't. But you get the idea.

That said, the beginning of the agricultural revolution brought grains, dairy, beans, and legumes into play, which, on an evolutionary timeline, was pretty much yesterday. The digestive systems of human beings simply haven't adapted enough to be able to efficiently digest these things, and the excesssive consumption of processed food, grains, legumes, soy, dairy, starchy carbs, and refined sugars is largely responsible for the epidemic of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, and heart disease plaguing modern day humans. Paleo is all about getting back to basics.

Anyway, there is a whole bunch of detailed information about Paleo scattered all over the internet, and rather than trying to repeat what's already been written much more eloquently by others, some good places to start are the links to the right of this entry under Paleo/Primal Resources.

Welcome to the jungle, baby.

Stay tuned.