• diet & genes: take two

    August 12, 2009

    In June I wrote about the impact of evolution and migration patterns on diet.  The post came after I attended an event at the Science Museum called “Moving Genes,” and it featured Dr. Mark Thomas, professor of Evolutionary Genetics at University College London.

    Whenever I write about someone, I like to send them a link to the post; and I was delighted when Dr. Thomas replied right away.  He attached a couple of relevant scientific papers, which admittedly gave me a minor headache as it has been quite a while since university.  He also very kindly let me know that I had misquoted him!

    Now, I actually love it when I’m wrong; because it means I’ll learn something, and in this case it also meant I’d have another post for you.  We agreed to talk the following week to clear things up.

    I wish I had hours and hours to speak with Dr. Thomas; his subject matter is so interesting to me it almost makes me want to go back to school.  I’ll try to sum up our conversation:

    The human species

    In comparison to other species, our biological difference are mostly skin deep.  The operative word here is “mostly”, which I had left out of my previous post.

    We all share a common ancestor that lived around 2,500 years ago.  It’s possible that some or many of us do not carry any genes that were inherited from this common ancestor.

    If we go back 4,000 years, everybody that was alive was either a common ancestor of everybody alive today or not an ancestor of anybody alive today.  I had to read that one several times, and I’m still not sure what it means.  Dr. Thomas clarified that it’s these points that many geneticists found hard to understand – not the general information I had related earlier.

    Milk tolerance

    As I learned during out call, just one word can throw off an entire scientific conclusion.  Dr. Thomas corrected my previous assertion about the digestibility of milk amongst Europeans: some of them have only been able to digest milk for 7,000-8,000 years.

    During times of drought and famine, populations that had access to cow’s milk – and could digest the sugar in milk – could ride out crop failure by drinking this (relatively) uncontaminated fluid.  Therefore, these groups would survive and reproduce whereas others could not.

    Frugivorous origins?

    As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading Dr. Douglas Graham’s 80 10 10 Diet – an intriguing read that makes a good case for how humans are designed to obtain the majority of our calories from fruit.  Dr. Thomas said that the best evidence for a frugivorous past is the color receptors in our eyes.  The majority of mammals have two receptors, whereas we and many of our primate cousins have three – the better to identify fruit with.

    Meat heads

    Again, a clarification:  Populations who ate meat must have had a major advantage, and we can measure this by looking at their genes.

    Dr. Thomas says:  “Our brains could not have evolved to be so big unless we had a high-quality diet with a high meat component.  Big brains are just too energetically expensive to maintain without rich food.”  However, he adds that we would have started out as scavengers, not hunters, until we developed tools 2.5 – 1.5 million years ago.

    I was in error when I stated, “our brains would not have evolved had we remained at the hunter-gatherer stage.”  Actually, we’ve all been at this stage our entire history up to 10,000 years ago.

    I learned a great deal during our call and was of course curious about Dr. Thomas’ vegetarian origins.  He said he went veggie at two-and-a-half years old when he saw his mother plucking a chicken and made the connection between the bird and his dinner.  He says, quite candidly, that he simply finds the idea of eating poultry and seafood disgusting.

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  • how do you watermelon?

    July 18, 2009


    I promise you I don’t work for Whole Foods, though at this rate I may as well.  I wasn’t even intending to go in there yesterday when this mammoth watermelon display stopped me in my tracks.  Hard to tell scale on here, but these are about twice the size of the melons I showed you in my shopping trip post.  And half the price.

    How is this possible?  I wondered this as I hauled my chosen bowling ball up to the cashier.  He gave me a big smile as if to say, “here comes another one.”  The nice young man (goodness, I sound like I’m getting really old!) told me that in his country (Bangladesh), melons like this are at least £3.  “I don’t know how they can be so cheap,” he said, “And people are buying up to four at a time.”  I asked how they were able to carry them home.  “They call their friends.”

    Wow.  So there you have it.  Watermelon mania in West London.  And now I turn it over to you.  While I am still in love with the now famous Watermelon Kiwi Cooler, I’m sure there are plenty other sweet ideas out there.  So tell me, what have you been doing with your melons?

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  • more (fruity) smoothie action

    June 25, 2009


    The kind folks at Whole Foods sent me the pictures they snapped of me at the Healthy Eating Tasting Fair last week, and this is one of them.  Notice the imported Ziploc bags (thanks, mom!)  All those bags have since been washed out and dried, sitting patiently in my cupboard for their next use.

    It might seem like all I drink are green smoothies, but not so.  I love all-fruit smoothies, yet there has been a lot of conflicting information circulating around the net and beyond about the consumption of lots of fruit.  One minute we read that having as much fruit as we crave all morning is the way to go, and the next someone is telling us that we should be reducing the percentage of fruit in smoothies and upping the green.  What to do?

    I’m now working my way through Dr. Douglas Graham’s 80 10 10 Diet.  What an eye opener.  Not only does Dr. Graham advocate having lots of fruit, he believes it should be the basis of our diet.  I’ll stop here since I want to finish the book before commenting further, but suffice it to say for now that reading it thus far has been a huge relief in that I finally understand that my lifelong incorrigible sweet tooth is actually a natural survival mechanism that has been distorted by unnatural food.

    With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to a recipe and blog I discovered last week, thanks to the author’s generous comments on this site.  Earth Mother’s colorful In the Raw turned me on to the Watermelon Kiwi Cooler, a perfect summer concoction I’ve been having every morning since trying it!  I tweak it a little:  using only one kiwi (fuzzy skin and all) and a few more strawberries (frozen).  The lime is non-negotiable and gives it a wonderful cocktail kick.  Not only has it made great use of my expensive watermelons (gulp), but it’s an awesome creation to whip up for guests.  Thanks, Earth Mother!

    And here’s another one of my own.  Enjoy the fruity fun!

    new recipe: groovy tangy smoothie

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  • all hail strawberry season

    June 11, 2009


    This was, admittedly, a stretch – even for me.  Yet I, and the berries, somehow managed to make it home in one piece despite carrying an additional eight pounds of apples on my back and keeping an eye on those tall leeks you see peeking out of the corner.  But how could I resist four punnets for 5 GBP (about 8 USD), plus a discount for buying double?  And how cute are those baskets?

    I do love my weekly trip to the farmers market here in West London, and yes – the British climate is such that we have abundant berries and apples at the same time.  I’ll remember that next time I’m inclined to complain about the weather.

    You’ve gotta love strawberries – they’re high in fiber, low on the glycemic index and just beautiful to look at, which has to mean nature really wants us to eat lots of them.  They’re also plentiful and relatively cheap right now, so go out and get some.  In fact, I’m so crazy about strawberries and how good they are for us that I’ve changed the blog’s background photo in honor of them.  Speaking of seasonal, I’ve now also tagged relevant recipes with seasons so you can search them that way, too.

    So, you might be wondering what a girl does with this many berries.  I’ll rinse and freeze about half of them – green tops and all – for ready inclusion in smoothies.  And the other half: well, they’ll go quite fast in this queen bee of un-recipes that ranks way up there on the simple, tasty scale.  It calls for sprouted grains, but fret not if you haven’t yet been converted to the wonders of these little gems.  I’ll soon be posting the secret to successful sprouting every time – and it requires no special equipment whatsoever.  And yes, this recipe violates that golden rule of food combining that says fruit should be eaten on its own, but I find that this combo agrees with my tummy just fine, and since the grains are sprouted we’re talking lots of live-enzyme action.

    Let me know how it works for you, and enjoy the berry bliss!

    new recipe: simply sensational strawberries

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  • are you snacking smart?

    May 25, 2009

    One of the most important aspects of sticking to a healthy diet is having no-brainer, good-for you snacks on hand at all times. Keeping your blood sugar levels stable is key to maintaining optimal energy levels between meals and controlling cravings, so the ideal snack is rich in fiber and low on the glycemic index.  Luckily, whole, plant-based foods are just the ticket.

    I always keep a stash of cashews (raw unsalted!) and fruit on me when I’m on the go.  Dried fruit can spike your blood sugar and should be eaten in moderation, so having a handful of nuts along with them is a much better option and keeps things interesting.  One of my favorite snacks is simply tucking a Brazil nut or almond into a pitted date – it tastes like pecan pie!  You can pre-prep these and put them in a re-sealable (reusable) bag to carry with you.  They’ll keep well in an office desk and in your car, too.  Use common sense in especially hot weather, but you’ll probably want fresh fruit during those occasions anyway.

    When shopping for dried fruit, read the labels closely to make sure you’re not buying a bag of preservatives.  Most health-food stores stock sulphur-free dried fruit; you just have to look for it.  You can also make up a batch of my Trail Less Traveled Mix and change up the dried fruit or leave it out altogether.  Dried cranberries are a nice variation; just make sure they’re not marked “sugar infused.”

    While dried fruit is certainly handy, Mother Nature does know best; and fruit eaten in its natural form is always superior.  After all, dried fruit doesn’t grow on trees and is high on the glycemic index because it’s missing the necessary water that nature packages beautifully in fresh fruit.  The same principle applies to juicing: the fibrous pulp in whole fruit keeps the sugars moving nice and slowly through the body rather than causing a rapid rise in blood glucose.  Therefore, save for an emergency energy lift, it’s much better to have a blended smoothie than stripped fruit, a.k.a. juice.  Green juice, on the other hand, is a great, quick way to get a ton of alkalizing phytochemicals into the body with minimal sugar.  Still, I much prefer my luscious smoothies!  In fact, I don’t even own a juicer.

    The high water content in fresh, whole fruit not only results in a lower concentration of sugar; it also means you’ll feel fuller faster and stay full longer.  Fresh fruit digests very quickly, causing other foods (especially fats) to sit in the stomach and ferment.  More on food combining in a future post, but for now just remember to try to eat fruit on an empty stomach and at least 20 minutes before a fat, starch or protein.  Berries, plums and apples are especially low on the glycemic index.  Bananas take a little longer to digest (about 45 minutes). They’re also perfectly portable and my on-the-go fruit of choice.  Make sure they’re ripe; lots of brown spots and no green tops are good.

    Speaking of portability, I treasure my Ziploc bags because my mom sends them to me from the US, but I only need about a box or two a year because I simply wash them out and re-use them.  I use and reuse the larger-sized bags to freeze fruit for making smoothies.  Similarly, I rarely buy stuff in plastic containers – preferring the bulk bins at the health-food store – but when I do I make sure to wash them out and put them to work storing nuts, sprouts, snacks and leftovers.

    On a similar note, I’ve just returned from a family reunion in Madrid and will be posting tips soon for healthier traveling along with a summery Spanish recipe, so please stay tuned!  Also, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  Happy low-sugar snacking, amigos.  Hasta la proxima.

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