My Bacteria-Laden Milk Baby

An Introduction To Kefir

On today's episode of Things That Will Alarm My Mother...

This is food. I'm going to eat it.

To immediately calm everyone's gag reflex and simultaneously freak out anyone who's ever taken food safety: no, it's not lumpy, sour milk, and yes, it has been sitting unrefrigerated for over 48 hours. What you're looking at is a tiny bottle of organic cow's milk infected with kefir grains. Instead of growing mold and curdling, these little grains, which aren't actually grains at all, are fermenting the milk by eating up its lactose, thereby making the milk the consistency of drinkable yogurt and creating probiotics.

Probiotics, as anyone not living under a rock probably knows to some extent, are bacteria that are the Miracle-Gro to your bowel garden. The inside of your body is full of germs, as is your skin and pretty much the entire world around you. If Disney's Recess taught me anything, it's that the world can't live without bacteria; there are millions of different kinds of germs, but they fall into categories of good and bad. Bad ones make you sick, good ones help you thrive. Your large intestine, in particular, is full of these little buggers, and they use the foods you eat to make things like Vitamin K, Vitamin B12, and Biotin. While most of the foods of the Standard American Diet are terrible for us and feed and create bad bacteria in our intestines, there's been a recent upsurge of pro- and prebiotics, supplements meant to encourage the growth of good bacteria so that we can avoid creating food sensitivities and infections of the digestive tract.

Back before the year 2000 or so, when "probiotics" wasn't even a word (and apparently still isn't, according to my spellcheck), people around the world kept their gut bacteria healthy by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. Nowadays foods like these are mostly fake-fermented; the containers of yogurt in the grocery store may say they've got lots of healthy germs for you, but it's likely they're dead or not there in the first place. It's actually not legal for most yogurts to contain yeast cultures, and a large quantity of milk products are over-pasteurized, which kills off any bacteria they may have had introduced in their creation. A traditionally fermented milk product like kefir may look a little sketchier, but is full of germs that have eaten up the lactose - so those with intolerances may actually be able to eat it - despite pasteurization, and creates an environment of good bugs ready for consumption.

While it might look like a science experiment, the bacteria created by a fermented food is actually - and I know this sounds backwards - antimicrobial, and basically kills off any pathogens that might want to take up space in a jar of unrefridgerated milk. In this way, it's almost impossible for fermented foods to go rancid, unless you do something wrong, in which case it's very easy to tell. My little bottle of kefir, happily munching away at its milk sugars, kind of smells like eggnog right now. If I were to leave it until there were no sugars left, say, over a couple weeks, and the kefir grains starved, my milk would probably start growing yummy-looking blue mold and smelling like, well, rancid dairy. We as humans are pre-programmed to sense when foods might be bad for us, which is why we tend to prefer sweet fruit over bitter greens. Your nose and taste buds will tell you when something is terribly wrong with what you're eating (with the exception of man-made food-like substances a la TV dinners, because they're full of chemicals that confuse your sensors).

The general process is this: take a spoonful of kefir grains, which look like chunks of ricotta cheese, and dump them in a jar of milk.  Cover, tightly if you want carbonation. Let the milk sit at room temperature for at least 24 hours, but no longer than 48 or so. Once the kefir grains float to the top and the fat in the milk starts separating, give it a sniff. It should smell sour, but not rotten. It might startle you at first, but the scent should not have you gagging and running for the nearest air freshener. Once your 48 hours are up, strain the grains through either a plastic or stainless steel strainer into a storing container (or glass, if you want to drink it ASAP), and return the grains to their bottle. Give them some new fresh milk, and enjoy your fermented stuff. Kefir takes a bit of getting used to - it tastes like a slightly sour unflavoured yogurt. I tried putting honey on it the first time, which tasted great, but a spoonful of sugar with your probiotics isn't something I'd recommend for the long term.

Kefir can be used to make pancakes, smoothies, yogurt dips (tried it on homemade latkes the other night!), and a host of other foods. You can drink it straight-up, like I do, preferably before meals. It's an excellent tonic for helping digestion, as are all fermented foods.

The one rub of this whole endeavor is finding the grains. Although they can be bought, SCOBYs ("symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast" - what kefir grains and the weird jellyfish-looking growth you use to make kombucha are) for fermented drinks are a sort of black market item that you generally acquire by donation from another person. Way less sketch than it sounds, I promise. SCOBYs will multiply over time, so if you've had a ferment for a while, expect to either throw the extra stuff in the compost or find someone who wants it. Sharing is caring, people. Speaking of, I have some happy kefir grains, if anyone wants some. Got them from school.


1) I was told you could ferment non-dairy milks with these same grains, as long as you gave them cow's milk every once in a while so they didn't starve, but my experiment with almond milk honestly just looked too nasty to drink. Feel free to give it a shot.

2) Although kefir grains should eat up all the lactose in the milk, be wary if you have milk sensitivities. The figurative shoe won't fit everyone. I've been having it exclusively once in the morning, as I don't normally drink cow's milk, just to see how it'll effect me. If you have any reason to be unsure, use discretion.

3) PLEASE make sure you're always washing your kefir bottle between uses. There's nothing worse than having to cry over spilled milk (I went there) because it's contaminated with mold. Keeping your ferments sanitary should always be top priority!

4) If you've got more kefir than you need or are going to go away for a while, give it fresh milk and store it in the fridge. The cold will slow the fermentation process.

Happy bubbling!
- Leah


Voluntary Poison: A Brainwashed Love Story

An Analytic Look At Drugstore Vitamins 

When I first moved away from my parents' house, my mother was constantly asking about how well I was eating. Although I've always downplayed the extent of my crappy food habits, I would admit that maybe I wasn't eating enough fruit or swallowing enough combined bean-and-rice protein for a vegetarian, and, with a frown, Mom would adamantly take me to the drugstore for a box of one-a-day vitamins. It was insurance, we figured, to make sure I was at least getting all my necessary vitamins and minerals. While there are only a few amino acids (proteins) that can be bottled, and science has yet to come up with a way to synthesize phytochemicals, vitamin supplements have been in circulation since the forties. They're a healthy way to buffer our standard American diets. If it were up to the opinion of mothers and dietitians everywhere, we'd all be popping a pill with our breakfasts every single morning.

As of the last few days, and much to the chagrin of the guy who usually does the shelf-stocking in the drugstore where I work, I've been going through the racks of supplements and checking expiry dates, stacking them neatly in rows, and trying to match the bottle with their haphazardly placed labels on the shelves. Being as the career I'm working towards can involve a lot of vitamin recommending, I took a moment or two when I came across something a little more vague than your basic "niacin" or "B complex" and read the labels on the bottles with fancy "Centrum Pronutrients Bone Health"-type names, wondering, okay, what's in this that makes it "great for bone health"? While certain supplements gave me obvious answers (calcium, vitamin D, etc.), others had me balking and wanting to hide the container behind one of its less dangerous brethren in hopes that nobody would ever buy and ingest the contents of its cheerfully sky-blue packaging. I'd had the same enlightened moment at home shortly before seeing a naturopath last week, and had trashed my tea cupboard in an inspection frenzy, wondering, "What on earth have I been ingesting?" 

We'd had a conversation early in the school year about multivitamins, and my classmates had been delighted to inform each other of the fancy brands they bought, rated five out of five stars and costing slightly less than their firstborn for thirty capsules. I kept quiet about my drugstore-brand pills, because as full as they were of good intentions, I knew they weren't the greatest, and could predict the judgmental, pitying looks and suggestions that would follow should I mention them. In their mostly-colourless bottle, my Compliments Century Complete tablets were a once-a-day dose of thirteen vitamins, six minerals, and one of the few capsule-able phytonutrients, lutein. As an overview, it sounds like a decent mix, but as my eyes traveled to the "non-medicinal ingredients" list, I became more and more horrified and promptly dumped what was left of the bottle in the compost. As a simple introduction, the "we're not food!" list included:

- Croscarmellose Sodium, an emulsifier that expands up to twenty times its size when exposed to water. It not only steals fluid from your body to do so, but can cause the vitamins contained within to be released in your stomach instead of your small intestine (which actually does 99% of the digesting in your body; elementary school lied to you), can create blockages in your digestive tract in large amounts, and can promote yeast overgrowth in your bowels.

- FD&C Yellow #6, a dye derived from coal tar that causes hyperactivity in children and can toxify the crap out of your liver and gastrointestinal tract. The EU has made it mandatory for this additive to have a warning label.

- Hypromellose, another emulsifier that's most commonly found in eye lubrication drops like Genteal. 

- Microcrystalline Sucralose, which, if my dissection of words is up to par, is basically "really small crystals of Splenda", and anyone who's been keeping on top of the world of sugar alternatives is aware that this little chemical can basically freak up every part of your body, from your thyroid gland to ovaries to liver, kidneys, and eyes.

- Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, which involves not only GM soy (which I try to avoid, because it can act as a crazy estrogen in the body) but partial hydrogenation, the act of forcing hydrogen into fat to make it more stable (think margarine), thereby creating trans fats, which our bodies have no idea how to deal with. Leads to cancer and screwed up sex hormones, among other things.

- Polysorbate 80, another emulsifier that some folks have allergies to and people with Crohn's Disease can be really hurt by. Has been proven to eff up the reproduction of and cause cancer in rats, is a skin and eye irritant, and is in most shampoos and toothpastes, as well as ice cream. Yum yum.

- Silicon Dioxide, most commonly known as sand. Seriously. Silicon is wonderful for us in its natural form, but when bonded with those two oxygen molecules it becomes an eye, lung, and skin irritant and can cause inflammation in the body.

- Titanium Dioxide, my personal favourite, because it's the specific reason I switched to a natural deodorant. That's right, folks, my multivitamin contained the same heavy metal your antiperspirant uses to plug up your pores and stop you from sweating. There's a lot of debate on the safety of this one, because it is naturally occurring, but there're a lot of suggestions that maybe ultrafine particles of razor-sharp titanium could be a little hard on our squishy insides and it's probably a carcinogen. 

Unluckily for me, this was only the first level of unending horror I found in the friendly-looking bottle of Century Complete. Conveniently, somewhere between my naturopath visit and my stocking shelves, I picked up Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over The American Meal by Melanie Warner and puked my way through the chapter entitled "Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again", which explained how things like Froot Loops and Wonderbread are made completely devoid of anything healthy and then fortified with synthetic vitamins created in China out of things like petroleum. The likelihood of any of those lovely vitamin supplements you're taking being sucked out of an actual head of broccoli or an orange are nil to nothing, my duckies. The vitamin D in your milk comes from lanolin, the grease made in Australian sheep wool. The calcium quantity in milk is likewise half due to the calcium phosphate (gathered from rocks or synthesized by adding calcium hydroxide to phosphoric acid) dumped into it. Vitamin C is made of ten rounds or so of acids, sugars, and fermentation, finished off with a dousing of hydrochloric acid, the same chemical our stomachs use to dissolve food. Vitamin B1 comes from coal tar.

Understandably, the thought of avoiding the vitamins health culture pushes like crazy can sound a little backwards, because what's a malnutritioned old lady to do if her calcium pills are full of carcinogens? She still needs to keep her bones strong, and she just doesn't have the appetite for multiple meals of yogurt every day. If the aforementioned list of additives wasn't a good hint, many supplements are not only not well used by our bodies, but honestly can't be digested. There are many documented instances of seniors excreting "horse pills" completely in tact, because their systems couldn't break them down. This isn't exclusive to the older generation, either; in our first-world societies of obese persons and overindulgence, our digestive systems in general are all beat to crap, and have enough trouble trying to consume Kraft Dinner. We simply can't deal with food that isn't food.

I won't say that every human condition can be fixed by diet, but certainly a large percentage of vitamin or mineral deficiencies can. If you're lacking a nutrient, it's either because A) your body can't absorb it, in which case you should see a doctor to find out why, or B) you're not eating it. When I began losing weight, experiencing brain fog, starving for carbs, and being cold all the time, I realized I was lacking a very crucial macronutrient - protein - and specifically the eight different "essential" amino acids it's made of. Plant foods have varied kinds of amino acids, and animal sources have all eight. I was eating very little of either. Instead of doing the math on which amino acids I lacked and spending a fortune on individual shots of 5-HTP or a sketchy bottle of "branched chain amino acids" from a bodybuilding supplement store, I bought a carton of eggs and ate them like it was going out of style. Three days later I feel like a different person. Food trumps pills.

Checking the ingredient list of every single supplement you're taking can be exhausting and overwhelming, as I realized while stocking shelves. Nobody's diet is perfect, and sometime you have to take a synthetic whatever to live on in relative health (hence my taking Vitamin D pills knowing they come from somewhere weird). But in the interest of not ingesting the same chemicals as are in your antiperspirant, consider keeping an eye out for the following:

1) Avoid ingredients that sound like chemicals. You don't go to the grocery store to buy a cup of Polysorbate 80 for baking, after all. If you don't recognize it, do a quick Google search before you start ingesting it. Despite what we'd all like to think, vitamin companies don't necessarily care how good for us their product is, as long as we buy it.

2) Do not ingest heavy metals. Good for the ears, but not good for the gob. Be wary of anything that sits on the Periodic Table. Some minerals are totally harmless, but others can be extremely detrimental to your health. Eat nothing containing lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, titanium, silver, gold, or arsenic, and be cautious of anything with iron, copper, zinc, aluminum, beryllium, manganese, and/or cobalt.

3) The less ingredients it has, the better. In my mind, a supplement should have only three things: the vitamin/mineral/herb, a container (which may have multiple ingredients, but should be generally composed of either cellulose or gelatin), and maybe something to make it go down smoothly (usually magnesium stearate).

4) Avoid shopping at the drugstore. This isn't to say that organic food shoppes are automatically better; I've gotten excellent-quality omega 3 fish oils at the drugstore where I work. The thing is, drugstores stock cheaper brands of supplements because their clientele is unlikely to want to spend much money on pills that won't relieve their symptoms right away. Always check to see what's in your vitamin and let it play a factor in how much you spend on it. As in the case of the probiotics I bought for GF, I would prefer to spend a little more for fewer tablets that were just germs and capsules than more tablets chocked full of strangely-named and unnecessary milk powders.

5) If it looks or tastes like candy, it's not helping. Almost all of the Vitamin C and multivitamin capsules you'll see marketed to kids will be either gummies or chewables, usually formed into fun shapes (and in some cases include temporary tattoos and stickers). Take one look at the ingredients of these and you'll see a list that goes, "Sugar, sugar, Splenda, sugar, chemical colour, Vitamin A, sugar, weird gummy emulsifiers, preservatives." Not only are these full of things you shouldn't be feeding to an already hyperactive three-year-old, but they're a waste of money. You could spend $15 on a tub of Flintstone vitamins to make sure your child gets her Vitamin C, and unintentionally pump her full of chemicals and mood-altering artificial colours, or you could buy a box of nectarines for $5. There are cases in which a fun-tasting vitamin may be the only option - with a picky or unwell senior, for example - but try to find the best bang for your buck and remember #3.

6) Liquids > everything else. If you can find a liquid fish or flax oil, I guarantee it'll work ten times better than "horse pill"-sized tablets for getting your omega EFAs into you. This one I can attest to personally.

7) You should feel a difference! I take four specific supplements every morning, and I notice when forget to. Instead of feeling awake and well, I'm overly anxious, easily depressed, broody, and unfocused. While vitamins are not stimulants and shouldn't have you feeling wired, they are meant to help - if you don't feel like it's doing anything, it's probably not. Stop wasting your money.

8) Alligators Don't Eat Fat Kids. Vitamin A (alligators), Vitamin D (don't), Vitamin E (eat), Omega Essential Fatty Acids (fat), and Vitamin K (kids) are all fat-soluble substances that our bodies store and therefore need less often than water-soluble vitamins. Taking large quantities of these can actually make you sick. Remember this when shopping for any multivitamin, unless you've been specifically told by a naturopath or other licensed practitioner to take more. The less of these a multivitamin contains, the better.

9) You don't need multivitamins! I still struggle to understand why my class full of health nuts are so insistent on taking these supplements, because if you're eating well, you should have no need to plug yourself full of synthetic food bits. It's interesting to note that professional athletes aren't actually allowed to take multivitamins; they're so unregulated that it's considered doping. If you believe you need to take a supplement because your diet stinks or is lacking something, consider first changing what you eat. It may be a little harder to do, but there's a significantly lesser chance of you poisoning yourself with a rutabaga than there is with a synthetic, chemical-bound pill.

In the end, the most important thing is to listen to your body. You know you better than anyone else!

In health,
- Leah


The Autumn Squash Challenge Round #3

Butternut Squash Vegan Mac and Cheese - The First Success

It's ridiculous how quickly time goes by when you're older. Everyone and their grandmother remarks of this at least once in their lifetime - "Back in my day...!" - but it's true that as you grow up days fly by inexplicably faster than they used to. I'm of the belief that it's because we don't mindlessly play anymore; we're overaware of the hours of the day and days of the week and everything we have to do before certain dates. It doesn't help that a good chunk of North Americans have very few, but very commercialized holidays throughout the year. About once a month there's a date we have to plan and buy gifts and make food for, and the stores we buy the supplies from are always two months ahead of us. You want Easter decorations? Start looking on January 2nd. If you're trying to prepare for Thanksgiving, you'd better have that eighteen pound turkey ordered three months ahead of time. Christmas is its own special cup of tea, shoving grinning pumpkins out of the way well before it's reasonable and putting a disrespectful screen in front of November 11th. GF and I actually went to our first Christmas craft show, because we're old ladies like that, just this past Friday (with poppies pinned to our chests, thank you very much). While I understand the jumping of the gun in some respects - craft shows are fun any time of year - it makes us overall more paranoid of time going by.

It was almost a full month ago I decided to learn how to cook squash, and it was with a bit of a shock that I realized I've only made about five attempts since then. Any time now, our craft show reminded me, we'll start getting snow here on the east coast (Manitoba's already had some), and it's a slow decline of fresh gourd availability after then. I've got to get my shit together! Especially now that I've finally gotten a grasp on how to cook pumpkin seeds. That's right, folks, I've finally figured out the trick. Thanks to the tutorial on Oh She Glows, I now know I need to boil - yes, boil - the seeds for ten minutes, then toast them for twenty at 325F. Perfection. Even my mother liked them!

Pumpkin seeds, by the way, not only have magnesium (muscle relaxation), potassium (nerve health), protein (everything) and healthy plant fats (brain and joint strengtheners), but are rich in tryptophan, that amino acid in turkey everyone says puts you to sleep. It is, consequently, beneficial if you suffer insomnia or high levels of stress, and is a precursor of serotonin, the brain's mood-regulating chemical. Folks who have depression often don't make enough serotonin, which is why SSRIs (meds that convince your brain you have more than you do) are so popular for treating it. The added bonus of cooking your own pumpkin seeds is that their hard shell is built of an insoluble fibre, which helps build and move feces along your large intestine. Hear that, everyone? If you're stressed, depressed, or can't sleep or poop, start downing gourd seeds.

My other success, with the actual flesh of a squash, was a batch of vegan mac n' cheese. I've come to the quick realization that I'm not as talented an inventor in the kitchen as I'd like to be, so I've been latching onto recipes and following them to a T, with fantastic results. You'd be surprised at how actual measurements can help make a concoction taste good. This recipe was also from Oh She Glows, although the first time I whipped up a batch I actually used honey mustard instead of dijon, so it was rather sweet. Can't decide which taste I preferred, though. The roasted squash by itself was fantastic, too.

It's a shame I can't claim to have figured out both these recipes by myself, but such is life. Maybe I'll stick to promoting other blogs' food inventions. Appreciate what talents you have and accept those you don't.

In related news, do you realize how many pumpkin seeds you can get out of two cheap jack o' lanterns? Manna from the heavens, I tell you! The world really does provide for us - you just have to know where to look. Now is prime time to start stocking up on homemade pumpkin paste and toasted seeds. Before you know it, the Christmas snowmen will have taken over!

Shortly put,
- Leah


The Post-Thanksgiving Stomach Sweep-Out

A Long Weekend Cleanse For The Poor and Bloated

First and foremost, I must apologize for skipping out of posting these last three times. Between GF being in the hospital (she's okay) and cramming for a heavy-duty Anatomy and Physiology test in school, I was a little pressed for time. Also, last Monday was Canadian Thanksgiving (which we like to refer to as "Thanksgiving" in the same way one would refer to "gay marriage" as "marriage" when they're used to it), and although I watched no tediously long football games and had no turkey to put me to sleep, I knowingly neglected my blog to dedicate my time to the love of my life and her cooking. So basically, I'm lazy. The lucky thing about having a new blog is that no one really notices when you skip out.

Like every other Canuck from here to Alberta - because I'm convinced everybody in BC is athletic and shapely and would never gorge themselves on mashed potatoes and gravy the way Maritimers do - I suffered the after-effects of a delicious, uncombined, heavy-on-the-starch Thanksgiving dinner with rounds of hiccups, water retention, gas, and my personal favourite, bloating (Revenge of The Baloonha Belly!). While I can accept the consequences of my speed-eating gracefully, I can't help but want them to go away just as easily as they come on. It took twenty minutes of eating to make me uncomfortable for three days, and this is just the beginning of the holiday season, packed with identical meals. Ah, the North American lifestyle.

Being as I'm in a classroom with a bunch of health freaks two days out of the week, a lot of conversation comes up about green - or for that matter, any colour - juices or smoothies. On any given day at least a third of my classmates have mason jars full of substances as green as cartoon toxic slime, slightly runnier than paste, and they slowly chug through it, somehow, without gagging. As appetizing as that sounds, fresh smoothies and juices are making an impact in the holistic world as widespread as the yoga movement. Movies like Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead have accentuated the reasoning behind consuming liquid leaves: plants are full of nutrients and it's hard to eat a lot of plants at once, but if you juice your plants you can eat a shit-ton in one go, thereby flooding your insides with nutrients without experiencing digestive stress. Bam, instant health! This is endearing and a great idea if you can afford tiny $5.00 bags of fruit thrice a week or more, but for those of us in the Magic Bullet boat, blending anything well is a far-off dream and affording a juicer - and the veggies to go in it - is a laughable goal. Certainly I can plan for the future, where GF's the family breadwinner and I can lounge around doing martial arts and drinking greens all day, but in the meantime I have to accept that these lovely alkalizing beverages are way out of my price range. There is a limit on how well I can take care of my body, and it's called rent.

This is a similar situation, I imagine, for many other folks fresh out of their parents' houses or struggling to make ends meet. Minimum wage is definitely the minimum one can live off of, and some folks are working with less than that. As much as vegan and locavorian books preach how affordable healthy food is, there are days when a loud, "Eff you," is the only appropriate response to the pages and their writers. This said, during my stint of über-hydration back in my first blog post, I discovered the only-slightly-splurgy poor man's way to clean and soothe one's digestive tract without living off lemon water and tea alone. I call it: The "Gerard, Is This A Grapefruit?" Weekend Cleanse*.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with all this fasting and juicing stuff, here's your 101 summery: A fast is when you go for a period of time, be it hours or days, without food. Many religions practice fasting. Persons on a fast can choose to eschew solid food and eat only liquids like soup and juice, or neglect anything beyond water for their fasting period. Fasts come in varying intensities and time periods, but the basic idea is that you don't eat food, so your digestive system gets a break. Cleansing, on the other hand, is less drastic and can still involve solid sustenance. It generally excludes anything hard to digest and focuses on simple foods to ease up on the tummy without starving the body of anything it might want. Anyone who's spent multiple lazy days in the summer eating nothing but fruit knows what a cleanse can feel like. If you're under a lot of stress day-to-day, or are working on upping a certain nutrient you're deficient in, doing either might be a bad idea. Talk to a nutritionist or naturopath. If you're pregnant, just don't.

So removed are most folks from what food is that upon asking my cousin if I could dig around for breakfast in their kitchen while visiting a few months ago, she apologized  for the "lack of groceries" in their fridge, full to bursting with fresh fruit. To me, my godparents' kitchen stock was food nirvana. To them, it was embarrassingly empty of quick-to-make meals. There's a really interesting point-of-view analysis to make there, but it's not the point of my story. Excited by the abundance, I had starting making humongous salads with gusto, savoring the feeling and taste of fresh vegetables and fruit, lounging around and taking long walks at leisure (because that's what you do in tiny Cape Breton towns), and drinking, I'm sure, vat-loads of tea. I noticed, on my last day before returning home, that I felt amazing. Light, bloat-free, awake and hydrated. I felt like every movement was a drink of sunlight, if that makes any sense. I hadn't had a single juice or smoothie, and I'm happy to report that I ate cooked food too, so there, raw foodies.

As much as I'd like to duplicate exactly what I'd done those few months back, I don't have three free days of nothing to do, I live in a loud, non-relaxing city, and fruit is expensive. But I have leftover vegetables from my parents, discount mushrooms and melons from a shop down the street, and enough time in the morning to whip up some basic salads. That, my friends, is enough. To be honest, it's a lot easier than doing a juice fast, too; there's no loud machinery, no supremely different tastes or textures, more fibre, and overall, it's way less expensive and time-consuming. True, you probably aren't getting as much of a nutrient dump as a juice fast would provide, but for those of us who have never done a cleanse or have habits and cravings they're trying to break free of, this little cleanse can be a massive help without all the mental and digestive stress. If you're overweight or currently living on Mickey D's, an intense fast can actually make you really ill, as it kicks up all the toxins and fats stored in your body, and can give you crazy diarrhea, since your guts probably haven't seen carrot paste since you were an infant (or maybe not at all) . A basic vegetable cleanse gives your tummy a break from hard-to-digest food, and the huge influx of liquids and fibre will help you poop and clear out anything that's been stuck in your intestines or bothering your liver without the associated nausea. Simple, but effective.

To do The "Gerard, Is This A Grapefruit?" Weekend Cleanse, you'll need three not-too-busy days, as many green foods as you can get your hands on, a bunch of apples ('tis the season!), and, if you fancy it, tea. Herbal tea, please. A cup of green mid-day won't hurt, but try to keep the caffeine to a minimum and avoid it in the morning. To make things easier if you've got, say, kids to take care of or very little time to yourself, wash up everything the day before you start your cleanse so you don't have to worry about it later. When you hit day one, start your morning with a mug of hot leaf juice. If you want more, have more. The whole idea of this "fast" is to eat as much as you want, which sounds backwards, I know. But when you do it, you're going to be having water and herbal tea, very little heavy proteins or starches, vegetables up the yin-yang, a good dollop of sweet fruit, and very little salt and sugar. When you're eating good food, you can have as much as you feel like shoving in your face. To cover my bases for those of you worried about how safe a cleanse is, consider:

1) People have been doing fasts for thousands of years. While living off just water (or air, because there are people that crazy) for a week isn't great for you, short periods of easy-to-digest food give your poor overworked digestive system time to rest. You sleep to rest your mind; why not fast to rest your body?

2) All vegetables have protein. Per 100g, a leafy green like chard or a floret like broccoli has 10g or so of protein, where 100g of steak would have about 8g. Honestly, you'll be fine. Almost everybody in North America and the developed world are actually over-sufficient in protein. It's hard to digest and acidic to the body, and being as we want to be alkaline inside, it'd do you good to give yourself a break from meats and dairy and whatever else is pushed to get your daily dose of the macronutrient. The only way you'll ever become deficient is if you eat only fruit (and no avocado) for years. Chill.

3) Doing a vegetable cleanse is the farthest thing from starving, if you're wondering. On a daily basis so many of us are eating tons and still suffering the munchies at the end of the day, because our bodies are going, "Hellooooooooooo, I didn't get my potassium! I need that! Go eat something!" When you chock yourself full of water (which cells love) and the vitamins and minerals vegetables are full of, your body gets its daily doses and keeps quiet, even if you're consuming fewer calories. You'll feel less hungry, suffer fewer or no hunger pains, and feel wicked good, because you're not weighed down with the task of digestion. Plant foods, especially when you're not including grains or beans, are pretty calorie-thin, though, which is why you can and will want to eat shit-tons of them. I'm serious about the "as much as you want" thing. There are no dainty salad-bowl-size salads in my house. There are mixing bowls for one. Pack enough food for an army everywhere you go. You will need it.

So, the basics of this cleanse are thus: Eat vegetables whenever you want, water in between, and an apple or two a day, and aim for as much raw as possible. The greener everything is the better. Salads are going to be your number one BFF, but feel free to have some cooked up veggies too; avoid white potatoes for the three days, because they're basically all starch and sugar, but carrots, squash, turnip, and anything like them are all fine.

Apples, cantaloupe, oranges, onion, shallots, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, pomegranate seeds, rutabaga,
kale, enoki mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, tomatoes, radishes.
Water is your best friend. If you're bored, watching TV, or otherwise generally chilling out, try to make sure you've got a glass of either water (unflavoured, please, unless you're just dropping orange chunks in it) or a mug of tea in your hand. Think of your digestive tract as a blocked pipe; you're pumping Draino (fibre) into it like crazy, so you're going to need to flush everything out with a bunch of water, too. You won't feel half as good on this cleanse if you're not drinking. That said, and this should be common sense, but you shouldn't be having any pop, juice, or otherwise non-water drinks. Coffee is out, caffeinated tea is out (this includes decaf, because it's a chemical mess), and alcohol is absolutely a no-go.

As much as it can be super hard for folks who have sugar addictions, avoiding large amounts of fruit is kind of a part of this cleanse. Even though the fibre in whole fruit does generally stop it from spiking your blood sugar levels, fructose is still fructose, and you'll want to haul back on it a lot. Feel free to spice the crap out of your meals - if you're feelin' an autumn-y breakfast, throw some pumpkin together with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, but hold the maple syrup. Keep a weary eye out for pre-combined spice mixes à la "pumpkin pie spice" that could have included sugar - anything doesn't sound like food or ends in "-ose" should be avoided.

Pepper is totally free game. Go nuts. Spices are all great. They'll actually help things along. If you don't eat a whole lot of processed food day to day, and you don't have blood pressure issues, allow yourself a little bit of sea salt on the odd meal during your fast, if you must. But by little I mean, like, a pinch. Not a hefty dousing. Do the same as you would for the sugar and check mixed spice bottles for added salt or sodium anything.

As I said before, you're going to need to go easy on the fruit, but they're not under a total ban. If you want to throw some blueberries on your salad to make it taste better, you go, Glen Coco. Just keep in mind that you want the majority of your food to be from the vegetable side of the ring. On a related note, I know it's hard to make salads taste good without dressing if you're used to it. There are still some kinds of greens I can't eat without some sort of sauce on top. But in general, try to stick to spices, olive oil (just a spoonful!), and a sprinkle of salt. Lemon juice is tasty to some people. Maybe vinegar, if that's your thing. If you need more flavor, try blending up some berries into a sauce. If you really must use store-bought dressing, try to use little, and avoid anything "free". If it's fat/salt/sugar/whatever free, it's probably a chemical shitstorm of things you shouldn't ingest. Take responsibility for consuming "unhealthy" food and eat it in its natural state or not at all.

In closing, go easy on yourself. Too many people get hung up on what they're supposed to eat or not eat and in what portion sizes and lose the whole point of a cleanse - to clean. You're aiming to soothe your body by making everything easy to digest and wholesome. Don't worry if you want to throw chicken in your salad, or if you sneak a scoop of mac and cheese from your kid's plate. It's not all or nothing.

A couple of tips that you don't need to follow but that will make your cleanse that much better:

1) Try to leave 20 minutes between each meal and drinks. Most of us are used to having a glass of something with food, but it actually messes up your saliva production and waters down your digestive juices. If you really need to, take a couple of sips of water while you're eating, but have as little as possible.

2) Chew your food! Seriously, pay stupid close attention to how much you chew each bite. Consider: there're no teeth below your mouth, so the less you chew the harder the rest of your digestive tract has to work. Food should be a paste before you swallow it.

3) When you reach the last day of your cleanse, try to ease yourself back into heavier foods. Suddenly dumping five cups of pasta into a freshly-cleaned digestive tract is just going to give you cramps and instantly take away the light, floaty feeling you get after three days of veggies. Instead, have a bit of chicken at lunch, or a cup of lentils with dinner.

4) Do yourself a favour and don't do this cleanse if your climate is now very chilly. There aren't enough fats and proteins in vegetables for the calorie boost you need in the winter to keep warm. Everyone's perception of cold is different, sure, but spring and early autumn are actually the best times to fast/cleanse. Trust your body - I've got too cold a temperament for cleansing in the colder months, so I don't.

So, because we all love point form and this is certainly long enough to give anyone attention deficiency problems, I'm going to summarize:

- Stock your house with vegetables and fruit. More of the latter than former. Discount racks are the best. Buy in bulk. Apples are like natural multivitamins, so have one or two a day. Try anything leafy and green. Eat like candy. Vary what you're eating - living off rutabaga is impressive, but not healthy.

- Drink water and herbal tea like it's going out of style. Try not to drink and eat at the same time. 

- Carry around enough food to feed six people and eat as much as you want whenever you want. Seriously, eat vegetables until you're going to burst. You can't have too many.

- Feel awesome!

With love,
- Leah

*The name of this game stems from my finding a grapefruit in my godparents' refrigerator with "Gerard, is this a grapefruit?" written on the rind with permanent market. My uncle can't eat this citrus fruit because it messes with his blood pressure meds, but had for some reason bought one. There, I'm not sounding crazy anymore - it's a phrase of association with my three days of awesome cleansing. This also brings up a point that anyone on prescription medication should remember: don't eat any weird spices or take any unfamiliar supplements until you're sure they're not going to react badly with your drugs. If you're on blood pressure meds, avoid citrus fruit like the plague.

DISCLAIMER TIME. I'm not a physician. If at any point you feel like shit or faint or are starving, nevermind what I've told you and go eat a sandwich or something. You know your body better than anyone; if it says something's wrong, SOMETHING'S WRONG. Please consider your state of health before you do any cleanse or fast - if you have blood sugar issues, are taking medications, have gaping nutrient deficiencies, don't know an orange from a grapefruit, or are feeling overwhelmed, USE YOUR BETTER JUDGEMENT. Talk to your doctor, a nutritionist, a friend who's done a million cleanses before, or consult Google. Take nothing at face value. Be inquisitive. Do what's best for you.


Breaking Bad (Habits, That Is)

Making Promises To Yourself: A How-To Guide

There was a summer in my teenage days where I dedicated hours to playing video games. Certainly I'd spent a while trudging my way through Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Cross (finishing neither) in traditional gamer style, with my body half buried in a beanbag chair, getting up every few hours only for food or bathroom breaks, but in particular I'm thinking of the one summer I spent playing Dance Dance Revolution.

Anyone aware of pop culture in the mid-2000's probably recognizes the misleading name of this game. As one of the first in "healthy" video games (AKA games that make you move more than your thumbs), DDR had a huge surge of popularity when I was entering high school and a reputation for making fat kids thin. Our now defunct local arcade showcased its DDR machine at its entrance, and the employees were quick to interest curious onlookers with stories of overweight teenagers who had played the game for months and shrunk down to fraction of their former sizes. It was mind boggling how fast those kids could move their feet. The arcade versions ran at about $2.00 for three songs, which you'd "dance" to by stomping on four directional pads at your feet. When the game became available on home consoles, my family quickly acquired the Xbox version, to which I spent an entire two months dedicating my time. Every day I would follow the same routine: get up, eat breakfast, "dance", eat lunch, relax.

Perhaps it was because accomplishing a song on any other level than Easy was a challenge for me, and sparked some kind of competitive-against-myself spirit. Perhaps it was just something to do during my long, mostly solitary summer. Whatever the reason, I playing that game with almost religious fervor. I missed out on a full summer of sunshine. I lost the twenty extra pounds I'd been carrying from gorging myself on peanut butter sandwiches and cereal. I had wicked stamina, suddenly. I'd picked up a healthy habit and was sticking to it.

Often when folks are told to change their diets, they're given the one-choice-or-none approach. Either they're handed supplements by the wheelbarrow and continue to eat the same as always, relying on the magic silver bullet of herbs, or they're told, "You need to stop eating red meat and have it never again and be a vegan forever no exceptions." While this is responsible in some cases (namely allergies), generally most people can't do the all-or-nothing. They have to start slow and be reinforced often. There's a reason kids given stickers in school learn to spell quickly.

My very first blog post was about drinking water. I discovered the magic of hydration, and swore I'd be chugging that sweet nectar of life until every cell inside me was sick of wearing its bathing suit. But like every other human being out there who's promised to stick to something, I have very quickly found myself with cracked lips and a mouth like a desert (especially in the morning - hello Sahara). The fact is, winter is upon us, and as the cold weather moves in, my desire to do anything, including walk, eat, and drink, becomes extremely limited. To add insult to injury and enjoy a double idioms, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I'm used to eating lots of simple carbs and drinking little water, and though I'd promised I'd rectify both habits, they're habits, and are severely ingrained into my life as stubbornly as a tick in the foot would be (Mom always warned us about going without shoes in the woods).

There will always be those persons who decide to do something and do it, cold turkey. Quitting smoking, abolishing fast food from their lives, or becoming immediately talented, like the boys my sister hung out with in school who just decided to learn to back-flip one day, and did (how?!). But for the rest of us, picking up a habit and adhering to it for the full twenty-one days they say it takes to make it automatic is often super stupid hard. For a few days we're golden, then we get lazy, or some event throws us off our schedule, and suddenly we're a week without following our own promises. Oops.

If the old Berenstain Bears books taught me anything, it was that nail polish is the best prize for taking care of your nails. I'm one of those people (and believe it or not, this is entirely unrelated to me preferring chicks to dudes) who cannot stand having long nails. Talons that click on tables and keyboards, hinder my ability to pick things up, and grow all kinds of little pointy bits drive me up the wall. I cut my fingernails down as far as I can and habitually pick at the sides and skin around them. Gross, I know. As of lately, though, I've been suffering the clickity-click and nasty feeling of enamel out of pure love - and compliance. GF's taking an aesthetics college course, and had me swear on fear of her murdering me that I would not pick at my nails so that she could do a proper manicure on them during her upcoming first night in the clinic. I promised I would, but only if they were kept painted. I like pretty colours on my hands and am less likely to destroy my nails if I can't see the whites of them.

In this story lies two examples of ways to enforce a new habit:

1) Make yourself accountable to someone else

2) Reward yourself for sticking to it

My third suggestion is to make your habit something measurable. If you're taking up running, decide, for example, that you'll run at least to the stop sign at the bottom of your street before you turn back. If you go farther, great! But you must make it to that point. When you do, give yourself a reward. Food isn't always the best option, unless you're giving yourself one big night-out-for-nachos reward instead of a bunch of Cheetos-for-dinner treats, but something as simple as stickers on a chart or allowing yourself to buy a new pair of earrings (or nail polish!) can be awesome for enforcement. On that same vein, either convince someone to do the run to the stop sign together with you every day, or enlist someone in your house to force you to do it - if I told GF to not let me in the house until I'd gone for a walk, she would most adamantly stand in the doorway and threaten me in the way that only a hobbit-sized nerd girl can until I had finished my stroll. Positive-in-the-guise-of-negative enforcement can be wonderful for making you feel guilty and obligated, especially if the other person does the, "It doesn't matter to me, but you promised yourself," thing. Be mindful of whom you're asking to threaten you, however - they'll need to know when to back down. If I were sick or having a severe bout of depression or anxiety, I would trust GF to recognize this and let the nagging go, or at least take me seriously when I said, "Not today."

When it comes to drinking water, I've decided to stick to one big blue bottle and drink two full loads of it daily. If I drink more, excellent! But two is my goal. That's 1.6 litres. Granted, I haven't yet found someone
to share the challenge with, which is probably the best way to hold myself accountable, but two days out of the week I'm in a classroom full of quasi-hippies who have water-drinking superiority complexes, and there is no stronger peer pressure to drink up than a judgmental eye (or twenty).

Finally, remember to give yourself some slack. Everybody forgets to take their vitamins, fill in their daily journal, and brush their teeth a particular way sometimes. Anyone telling you otherwise is lying. Habits take a long time to enforce, and nine out of ten people are going to fall off the bandwagon a couple times before new goals stick. Making yourself swear that you're going to do something is great, but the most important thing to promise - shut up, Yoda - is that you'll keep trying. I've been on and off promising myself I'll stick to vegetarianism for years, and sometimes I feel bad about having a nibble of Christmas turkey, but I've learned to listen to what my body wants, and sometimes it wants a piece of poultry. Some days you really don't want to run, because everything sucks and the outside world just seems too big. Sometimes you pick up a cigarette and puff halfway through it before you remember you were trying to quit. Some potlucks just have damn good food with crap-tons of fat in it. Remember that one time isn't every time, and you're strong enough to try again.

In the end:

1) Everybody makes goals and promises that they have trouble sticking to. Habits take forever to build. Make your new habit something you can measure, and practice it at the same times each day to make it really stick. Enforce it, reward yourself, and cut yourself some slack when you need to. At the risk of exasperated eye-rolling for using another idiom: Rome wasn't built in a day.

2) Drink your water.

- Leah


The Autumn Squash Challenge Round #2

Pumpkin Pureé and Popped Amaranth

To be honest, I've never been a huge fan of Halloween, which is funny, because I make costumes as a hobby. But there's a stark difference between coming up with something clever and cheap (Glow stick stick-men! Static cling! Two peas in a pod!) for a one night dance and spending months weeping and freaking out over making a physical outfit to match the often unreasonable proportions and attributes of a cartoon. Anyone who's ever been in the situation of a cosplayer at work or watched one of those "Shit Cosplayers Say" videos is well aware of how out of hand this hobby can get. Budgets are blown, toxic chemicals are inhaled, too-tight wigs are suffered. It's a lot like the kind of stuff models go though, I imagine. There's pain, discomfort, and hunger suffered for beauty - I once went a week before a convention eating nothing but raisin bread with margarine because we were too busy sewing to buy food.

Maybe it's because I'm introverted, or because I've always been bad at making Halloween costumes that were anything other than stereotypical (cat! witch! another cat!), but this end of October holiday just didn't hold much for me after I wasn't allowed to go candy-collecting anymore. My mother, be it out of love or actual lack of money, made the Halloween costumes my sister and I wore every year when we were children, with the patience of a saint and mega creativity. We may not have been as fancy as the other kids in school with their store-bought princess dresses, but I had custom-made butterfly wings that could probably have concussed someone, and my nine-year-old sister was the best sheet of leopard-print roadkill anyone had ever seen. We were proud of our hard work. Halloween has its benefits, therefore: I've gained an obsession-level love for the construction of costumes thanks to Mom, a good bunch of ingenuity genes, and a fondness for stabbing pointy things into an unsuspecting vegetable and lighting it up for display (especially when it's designed to mimic my grotesque plastic surgery eye scar).

Let's just say I had the scariest costume ever,
and Spousal Abuse Barbie got extra candy that year.
Most anyone who's celebrated Halloween has at one point or another carved up a Jack o' Lantern. A dear friend of mine once did up about a hundred of them for around his parents' house, both traditional (triangle eyes, jagged mouth) and non (a light-up Pacman and monster pumpkin eating bleeding apples). The two of us rubbed our hands raw pushing knives through their tough skin, but it was a lot of fun, and I got from it seeds that sprouted like weeds in my garden at home and a couple years' worth of fulfillment for my carving quota. Once I'd moved out on my own and felt the desire to carve again, I'd picked up this particular guy in the above photo, but he only lasted a day after he'd been exposed to the heat of our apartment, and then promptly turned fuzzy and blue, so I now know that I can't cut up pumpkins in this building unless I'm cooking them.

Technically speaking, pumpkins are a type of squash, but for some reason get their own considerations by those people who hate zucchini but love pumpkin pie. Go figure. Maybe I'm a purist, spoiled by the first pumpkin pie I'd ever made and tasted in Orillia (directed by GF's recipe, sent via email), but I refuse to cook with canned pumpkin pureé unless I'm forced to. Making my own is stupid easy and ensures I'm getting a local food - if Nova Scotia's good at growing anything in particular, it's apples and winter veggies. Not only is it kind of soothing to roast a pumpkin, as they make your whole house smell autumn-y, but you also get the seeds from them, which you can roast, although you'll have to find instructions somewhere else, because, as my first Autumn Squash Challenged post indicated, I still haven't mastered how to do it yet.

Because I'm lazy and GF's much better at explaining this, I'm going to let her 2010 self do the explaining for how to roast a pie pumpkin (jack o' lanterns are bigger and need more sugar to taste good). While pumpkin smush is good for making pretty much anything involving the season of fall, you're going to want to not do what I did and mix your pumpkin with cinnamon and oatmeal. Sounds good, looks... not good. Tastes okay.

A large serrated knife (a clean handsaw works too)
And ice cream scoop (or a big spoon; I find the scoop is easier, though)
A large pot


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Step 1: Determine if it's a Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin or a pie pumpkin. Pie pumpkins are the smaller, rounder type of pumpkin. Jack-o-lanterns are the big ones. This is important! Trust me!

Step 2: After determining the kind of pumpkin you've got, wash it under warm running water. DON'T USE SOAP.  Just make sure it's all nice and clean. Maybe hug it a few times too. You're about to get very intimate with this pumpkin, so it's okay. 

Step 3: Cut the pumpkin in half. Use your large knife (or handsaw) and use a sawing motion. A serrated knife is better than a smooth one! They both cut the same, but the smooth knife is more likely to slip and hurt you!

Step 4: SCOOP OUT THE GOOEY INSIDES! You wanna get rid of all that stringy, dangly, slimy stuff! BUT SAVE THE SEEDS! Place them in a bowl of water and rub them between your hands. Then pick out the orange bits (throw that away) and drain off the water. Spread them out on a clean towel or paper towel to dry and they're ready to roast. 

Step 5: After the pumpkin is all scooped out, put it into a oven-able container with a lid. Depending on the oven, baking the pumpkin can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half. After the 30 minute mark, check it every fifteen minutes or so and when it's nice and soft. 
Step 6: Once it's soft enough it is easy to scoop out the guts with a table spoon.  Use the spoon to gently lift and scoop the cooked pumpkin out of the skin. It should come off the skin pretty easy if it's cooked enough. Sometimes the skin will lift right off with your fingers! Put the pumpkin into a container or big bowl of some sort. If you find that there's a lot of water coming from the pumpkin, let it sit for like... 20-30 minutes and then drain the water out of the container. Otherwise your gloop will be really runny.

Step 7: IT'S TIME TO PUREE THE PUMPKIN! Hand mixer, blender, food processor... What you have there to do it with... PUREE THAT PUMPKIN!

Pureéd pumpkin, as any baker knows, is good for everything this time of year, from pie to muffins to probably spice lattés (but who knows what goes in those). I've got some leftover from the atrocious pumpkin oatmeal I'd made, and it'll probably be turned into some sort of sweet, as they're more reliable and satisfying. I made killer chocolate chip pumpkin muffins last year. Let's aim for that.

In related news, whilst reading Gluten-Free Girl and debating what to do with my pureé, I suddenly decided to make popped amaranth. Anyone up on their health craze reading will recognize amaranth as an ancient grain that comes from an ornamental flower, rich in lysene, an amino acid that's harder to find in plant than animal food. Amaranth seed basically looks like tiny yellow-y styrofoam balls - the ones that pepper your carpet when you break a big piece of foam from the box your microwave came in. It's got a kind of nutty taste, is rather cheap, and can be puffed up like popcorn. 

Let me try to explain how much fun popping amaranth is using a video (which I swear was HD before I uploaded it).

I'd been rather intimidated to try popping this little grain. I'd heard from multiple sources that it was super easy to do, but any recipe that entails "heating a skillet on high" usually has me balking and GF running from the room. But I was apparently having the sort of day where anything is possible if you don't think about it too much, and so before I'd realized what was going on I was throwing seeds in a pan with a spoon and listening to the sizzle of oil-less cooking. The sound popping amaranth makes is rather soothing, to be honest, like a gentle rain. It's also a lot of fun, and way less hard than I'd imagined. Basically, you put a little frying pan on high heat, toss in a couple spoonfuls of amaranth at a time, let them pop and stir until they're all turning a chocolate colour, then throw them in a bowl. You can use it to make homemade granola bars (like I did; just toss a bunch of grains and nuts into a pan with some sticky coating, like honey or molasses), as cereal, or probably to make cookies or something. In any case, it's an adorable food and I'll be finding more ways to include it in my diet.

Popped on the left, raw on the right.
So basically,

1) No recipe for anything especially different today, but now you know how to make your own pumpkin pureé. If I ever get around to making muffins I'll put up instructions.

2) Popped amaranth is super fun and meditative. Plus it's good for you.

Inconclusive and unhelpfully,
- Leah


The Salty Lesser of Two Evils

Why Quality Salt Is Healthier Than Shitty Sugar

Iodine is - brace yourselves, I consulted my textbook for this - a poisonous gas that we need to ingest. A halogen mineral, it sits comfortably in the 53rd spot of the Periodic Table, and is apparently purple, not that we ever get to see it. It's most commonly found in vegetables and mixed in with table salt, or salt in general, which is why folks who live in places like Halifax don't have problems with goiter; the sea breezes blow enough iodine into our systems that our thyroid gland doesn't have to expand to try to catch more. (For those of you wondering what goiter is, think of the guy in Disney's Tangled with the winged helmet.) While Iodine in its natural gaseous form is terrible for us, iodine in food is a natural substance that we need to function correctly. This is also true of the salt in which it's found. As much as it's not super great for your blood pressure, without it you would absolutely die. Salt is so necessary that in ancient civilizations it could be traded as currency and people would get arrested for boiling saltwater at home instead of buying it. It's a big deal.

My Daddy recently read and recommended a book called Wheat Belly by William Davis, and has been following the author's guidelines for getting rid of his persistent "beer belly", which I'm very proud of him for. Mr Davis believes that because wheat grown today is so far removed from the wheat that folks in the fifties and earlier had that our bodies have no idea what to do with it. Genetically engineered and cross-bred to be uniform heights, grow at specific times, and taste a specific way, as well as survive frost and pests, the wheat plants we eat in pretty much everything are not only a threat to those with gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease, but everyone else, too. I've been mostly following in my father's footsteps as of the last week or so after finishing a school project and realizing maybe wheat wasn't the best for me, either - albeit for a different reason.

This past Thursday I'd asked my teacher which was worse: salt or sugar. We'd been talking about atherosclerosis, the hardening and thickening of arteries in the body, and how the amount of salt someone eats can alter how bad their situation is. The class before, we'd talked about how sugar in high amounts, especially high fructose corn syrup, was causing ridiculous quantities of children in the United States to develop or be born with type two diabetes. Obviously neither salt nor sugar are great for you in large amounts, but it seemed, to me, that sugar was the baddest baddie of the two. It makes us fat, attention-deficit and hyper, lethargic, blocks absorption of vitamins we need to live (like vitamin C; those with compromised immune systems should really avoid it), inflames the body, is addictive, severely screws with our insulin levels, and tastes so damn good we can't stop eating it. Salt, on the other hand, keeps us balanced in more ways than one. It helps our bodies build hydrochloric acid in our stomachs to break down food, aids in blood sugar controls, and supports our thyroid gland. This being said, the thousands of grams of cheap, white, refined salt that live in prepackaged meals and your cute bottle of table salt aren't helping you at all. On the contrary, they're making you sick.

Anytime I've ever heard the term "food diary" I've gotten annoyed. Those two words ring out at me from every television show, healthily living book, and style magazine available, all aimed at women trying to lose weight - keep a food diary, they say, and you'll eat better! Or less! Or you'll just feel ridiculously guilty and
ashamed and stressed out, says I. Tedious and over-analyzed, the whole concept seemed pointless to me. But despite my loathing for the practice, I was assigned a project for school that told me to do just what I'd never wanted to: keep a food log. For five days I had to plug in exactly what I was eating and at what time (although thankfully without note of calories), how much water I drank, how I felt, and how many times the toilet and I made conversation. Afterwards, it was my responsibility to look over the information from an outsider's point of view and make recommendations to the "client" on how to eat healthier.

One of the most frustrating questions vegetarians of any kind get asked is, "Where do you get your protein?" Although this macro-nutrient comprises 20% of our body and is needed for everything from muscle building to brain power, it's considered the most important thing we ingest beyond calories by most people. Never mind that your body needs good carbohydrates and fats to function well too, no, the question is always, "How much protein are you eating? Are you pregnant? Are you trying to build muscle? Are you old? More protein! Eat your lean chicken!" Becoming a vegetarian at age fourteen opened me up to years of this question and insists that I eat more beans. Confirmations that yes, a person can get plenty of protein from plant foods were always met with hesitant, "Okay..."s and disbelieving looks. If you know a vegetarian or vegan, please refrain from asking this question, as well as the, "But if you were trapped on a desert island with only a cow to eat...?" one. Just stop.

It was, therefore, the most grueling self-acceptance of mine that I realized, upon finishing my food diary report, that I was severely lacking in protein. In the span of a week I'd eaten nothing but sunflower seeds that were specifically, predominantly protein. Suddenly the suspicious muscle loss and slower cognitive function I'd been experiencing made perfect sense, especially when paired up with the realization that I live almost entirely off of sugar and simple carbohydrates, and had been following this pattern for years. No wonder I'm hungry all the time.

Most anybody can recognize plain white sugar. Hand someone a chocolate bar and they'll easily confirm that it's loaded with the stuff. Fruit, most people can tell, has its own natural sweeteners. But when handed a box of pasta, nobody looks beyond the nutrition facts on the side that say how many carbohydrates are inside and wonders what that pasta will become once they ingest it. When we eat the three main macro-nutrients, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, our body takes them apart like Lego and then build them into things our
bodies need to function. Fats... well, they stay as fat, and lubricate our cells, move fat-soluble vitamins around, and pad up our internal organs so we don't die of cold or shock. Protein is deconstructed into amino acids when we eat it, little building blocks that construct everything from stretchy muscles to serotonin. Anything solid besides bones in these meat sacks we call bodies is made of protein. Carbs, on the other hand, are our main source of energy. Our bodies run on glucose, a form of sugar. Carbohydrates, both complex like buckwheat and simple like pasta, turn into glucose. Carbohydrates are sugar.

These are all sugar. Simple sugar.
The reason low-carb diets "work" is because our bodies, when they can't find sugars in our diet, will pull stored sugar, sitting in fatty deposits (your favourite love handles) out of our bodies to burn for fuel. Once those are gone, your brain instructs your digestive tract to start eating protein, our emergency rations. This is called ketosis, and although Mr Atkins thinks it's a great idea, it's dangerous and ensures that when you do reintroduce carbohydrates, your body's going to hold on to those sugars, in the form of fat, like a starving man would a banquet. The fact is, we all need carbohydrates to function right. It's the cheap firewood that keeps us running. Cutting out carbs is like throwing electronics in the fire to avoid burning up wood. Electronics don't burn well, aren't good to be breathing in, and cost a lot more than a chunk of dead tree. Plus the fire'll be pretty weak by the time you decide maybe it's okay to use firewood again. Let's just do ourselves all a big favour and not avoid carbs, alright?

Carbs come in a couple forms. Simple sugars are pasta, white rice, bread, basically anything that makes you feel good eating when you're stressed out. Complex carbs are buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice, beans, things that make it too hard for you to have dessert because you're so full. At the risk of getting too technical, simple sugars are little chains, and complex are long chains. If you had a couple jelly beans in one hand and a foot-long Fruit Roll-up in the other, which would take longer to eat? These long-chain "Fruit Roll-up" complex carbs are a slow form of sugar that your body can still use well but that don't cause blood sugar spikes or contain so many simple "jelly beans" that they get out of hand and your stomach has to time-out them in fatty deposit corners. Basically, if you've got problems - like me - with eating too much sugar, opting out of the Halloween candy isn't good enough. You've got to get rid of the simple carbohydrates and replace them - to avoid ketosis - with complex. The bonus of complex carbs, especially for those of you worried about their vegan family members, is that they contain protein. I've been opting out of eating wheat - which is generally a simple carbohydrate, unless you're eating wheat berries - and these "jelly beans" in general both to stabilize my blood sugar, increase my protein intake, and help satisfy my unending hunger.

Here we arrive at the point of this post. Salt. Once you cut that delicious sugar out of your diet, and being as everyone and their mom's telling you you need to stop eating salt, food's probably going to look pretty bland. I have bad news for you: you should probably cut down on the salt intake, and you have to stop buying regular old table salt. The good news is, you don't have to get rid of salt completely.

Dextrose is a chemical term for glucose. Sugar.
Consider where salt comes from. The sea, the earth, the human body. The table salt we're all used to eating comes from one of these sources (hopefully not the last one, haha), gets sent to a factory, and then is bleached, depleted, de-ionized, sprayed with chemicals, sprinkled with iodine, rolled in sugar, and packaged in pretty white bags. You read that right. Go grab the salt from your baking cupboard right now - there's sugar in it.

Obviously when your salt has sugar, your body's more than a little confused and you're eating something very unnatural. The general goal of someone who wants to be healthy should be to eat as close to a food's traditional form as possible, meaning they'd opt for a steak, which is just a hunk of muscle, instead of a hot dog made of mysterious beef parts mixed with chemicals and wrapped in plastic. Seasonings should be looked at the same way. If you went down to the beach, grabbed a cup of seawater, and waited for the liquid to evaporate, you'd be left with a cup of probably grey and black chunky salt. Believe it or not, this stuff is totally edible (although it's not a great idea, since our oceans have pollution problems). This is natural salt, the way it's been mined for centuries. It's infused, like a good tea, with minerals like magnesium, potassium, and calcium. A good natural salt can have as many as 85 different trace minerals in it. The chemical table salt we're all used to, by contrast, is bleached white, has all the minerals sucked out of it, has to have iodine put back in to protect midwesterners from goiter, and it's so over-purified that it bypasses every toll booth in our bodies and therefore screws us right up.

If you're going to eat salt - and we all should, in small doses - I highly, highly suggest you invest in a lovely sea or rock salt. Be mindful - if it's pure white, it's probably just a variation of the sodium chloride table salt we're all used to, labeled as "sea salt" to get in on the health craze because technically speaking, all salt came from the sea at some point. Aim to find yourself a nice off-colour salt, fine ground or chunky. My cupboard personally has some adorable fine pink Himalayan sea salt (said to be the richest in minerals), a rich grey Celtic sea salt, and oak-smoked rock salt from South Africa, which smells like a campfire in November. The added bonus of natural salts is that they've got stronger, deeper tastes, and you therefore need less, and this is coming from someone who salts the crap out of her food. It's important to point out that if you're eating a lot of sugar, whether with your sodium chloride, in candy, or as simple carbohydrates, you're probably going to crave salt like a boss to counteract all the sweetness. Cutting down on sugar means you'll need less salt, and if you're eating a healthy, un-stripped salt, you'll be getting essential minerals along with your meal instead of heart problems. Win-win-win.

In summery:

1) Simple carbohydrates are sugar. While our bodies do need sugars to function, they run best on complex carbohydrates that digest slower and give us a little boost of protein. If you're like me and eat bread and pasta all the time, consider switching up for more brown rice and buckwheat to balance yourself out. For the record, granola and oatmeal are simple carbs doused in sugar. Avoid them.

2) Your table salt has sugar in it. It's completely devoid of nutrients and you need shit-tons to make anything taste good. Spoil yourself with a colourful, mineral-rich sea or rock salt and experience both amazing new tastes and health benefits that will protect (in reasonable amounts) instead of harm your heart.

3) Although we all hate to hear it, vegetarians and vegans need to be mindful of their protein intake. It's very possible to be totally healthy on a plant-based diet, but us lazy meat-avoiders have to be careful. If you're like me and don't particularly care to eat beans every day, make sure you're eating lots of whole grains and nuts. If you're also like me and can't really afford/keep forgetting to buy nuts, or are getting really deficient in this important macro-nutrient, consider getting a hemp or plant-based protein powder.

4) Mr Atkins' program is dangerous and dumb. Your body needs fat, carbs, and protein. Give it good quality and reasonable amounts of all three, exercise a little, and stress less, and you won't have to worry about your weight.

5) Food journalism isn't a good long-term habit, I personally think, but it's not a bad idea to log your eating habits for a week or so and then critically look them over - do you eat a lot of sugar? Simple carbs? Salt? Are you stressed out? Do you poop? Are you eating late at night? Take responsibility for your own health. I'll be seeing a naturopath later this month who can help me out with the specifics of my protein deficiency and organize some better eating habits, but in the meantime, I know what I basically need to fix. It's no good waiting for someone else to take care of you; you're the best specialist you've got.

In health,
- Leah