Why I Hate Superfoods

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Well, “hate” is too strong a word. Let’s just say I find the word distasteful and not helpful when it comes to instilling an understanding of how to eat to promote healthy aging and prevent chronic ills like cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.  You see, most lists of superfoods are innocuous.  The foods themselves are usually low in saturated fat and glycemic index and high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber—all nutrients that have been associated with better health.

The problem is that the very term superfood reinforces the same mindset that suggests you can simply swallow a pill and make everything bad go away.  People who jump at superfood lists glom onto a particular food and eat it everyday: blueberries, walnuts, kale, salmon, acai berries…whatever, thinking that one ingredient will provide the magic bullet to cure all.

Researchers have tried the same approach, and it’s failed every time.  They’ve extracted particular nutrients that seem to have preventive powers from foods—folate, vitamin E, vitamin A—and done clinical trials where they give these supplements to see if they reduce incidence of cancer or heart disease. In many instances, trials have had to be stopped because they saw damage occurring along the way.  Too much of some single vitamins may be as harmful as too much. Or there may be nutrients we have yet to discover in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Or it may be that it’s the combinations of foods we eat that are so helpful.

A truly healthy diet must include a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains everyday.  If you follow my blog, I’ll offer recipes that are creative and delicious, and that make healthy eating a delight.  Not a single superfood, but a collection of them that together will put powerful nutrition tools in your hands.

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AIOLI, aka Garlic Mayonnaise

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Aioli is both the name of a classic garlic mayonnaise and a dish starring the sauce.  A gorgeous colorful platter composed of raw and lightly steamed vegetables, aioli can also include fish, typically salt cod, but also fresh, or tuna usually with potatoes. I like the vegetarian version best.  You cannot serve anything more tempting or more beautiful on a hot summer night. Aioli can be offered as a first course or the main event, with a chunk of artisan whole grain bread and some good cheese.  As for the vegetables, choose whatever is freshest, tastiest and prettiest at your farmer’s market.

Aioli aka Garlic Mayonnaise

My aioli consisted of cooked artichoke heart; fresh fennel, grape tomatoes, radishes and red bell pepper; and lightly steamed green beans, baby broccoli and romanesco. My version is not perfectly traditional in that I add a touch of mustard. The original classic was made with nothing but garlic, salt and oil, but I find the balance of flavors and texture of this enormously appealing.  I like it best the next day, when it’s had a chance to mellow just slightly.

  • 6-8 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or coarse kosher salt
  • 1 cup your best extra virgin olive oil (I prefer Tuscan or Spanish Arbiqueño)
  • 1 organic, farm-fresh egg yolk
  • 3-4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons water
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Pinch of raw sugar
  1. In a marble or stone mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with the salt to a paste. Gradually work in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until you have a fairly smooth, almost fluffy puree.
  2. Briefly whirl the egg yolk in a food processor. Add the garlic puree and with the machine on, gradually add 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil through the feed tube. Continuing to process, gradually add 2 teaspoons each lemon juice and water, then slowly drizzle in the remaining 3/4 cup oil. Don’t worry if a bit of the oil remains puddled around the blade.
  3. Scrape the aioli into a small bowl, using a scraper to get all the oil out of the machine. Whisk in the mustard, sugar, and additional lemon juice if you’d like. Season with additional salt to taste.  If not using at once, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Summer Vegetables with Aioli

Zucchini Succotash

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Some darling young yellow squash and zucchini, tender and just off the vine, called out to me at our local farmer’s market. With fresh corn and tomatoes just starting to appear, I couldn’t resist this sweet/tangy vegetable mix, loaded with antioxidants and  healthy fiber. You can serve it warm, at room temperature, or even slightly chilled, so it’s perfect for a picnic, good with roast chicken, grilled shrimp or fish. Serves 4 to 6.

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, crushed, plus 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or crushed hot red pepper
  • Kernels from 2 ears of corn.
  • 5 or 6 small yellow squash and zucchini (about 12 ounces total), sliced or diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 large Roma tomatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. In a large skillet, sauté the onion in the olive oil over moderately high heat until soft and golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the bell peppers, garlic, cumin seeds and Aleppo pepper. Cook for 3 minutes longer.
2, Add the corn and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until it is almost tender. Add the squash, tomatoes, ground cumin, and oregano. Sauté for 3 minutes longer.
3. Pour in the chicken stock or water, cover, and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, until the squash and zucchini are just tender. Season with the lime juice and salt and black pepper to taste.

Careful with Calcium

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For years, many of my friends were popping calcium supplements like candy. How else to prevent slow bone erosion and eventual osteoporosis, especially after menopause? (Well, proper diet– including dairy products, leafy greens, and fish–and weight training are two good ways, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.)  Anyone with heartburn added calcium from antacids to the mix, thinking they were doing themselves even more good. Wrong on both counts.  Most doctors recommended 1200 mg, the government’s number for women over 50. But keep in mind, if you take 1200 mg calcium citrate or calcium carbonate in supplements and drink milk or fortified orange juice or eat yogurt, salmon, fortified cereal, or leafy greens, you’re taking in anywhere from 30%-50% more.

I first became skeptical when I learned that a pregnant young woman needs no more calcium than a woman her age who is not pregnant.  How can that be?  Well, the body, it turns out, takes what it needs and ignores the rest. Not long ago, a couple of very large studies published in the British Journal of Medicine noted an alarming increase in sudden heart attacks associated with too much calcium intake. They recommended taking no more than 800 mg in supplements. The USDA, which regulates both the dairy industry and our nutrition recommendations, stuck to their guns and continued to insist on an adult DRI of 1200 mg calcium at least, insisting it was safe as long as you were getting enough vitamin D–which almost no one is unless they take a supplement.  Now, a study of over 35,000 individuals has shown a direct relationship between too much calcium and mortality from heart attacks.  It may be that all that extra mineral  circulating in the blood  may lead to calcification of the inner lining of the blood vessels.Don’t get me wrong. Calcium is an extremely important nutrient and the most abundant mineral in the body. We need minute amounts of it for vascular health, muscle contractions, to speed nerve impulses, allow proper cell signaling and hormone secretion. The majority of calcium serves to replenish our bones, which are constantly turning over, balancing in the blood with potassium, to preserve critical acid acid/base balance necessary for life.  If you know your diet is deficient, a 600 mg supplement should be plenty. But strive to obtain what you need form a healthy diet. Here is a list of excellent natural sources of calcium:

  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • sardines (bones in)
  • canned salmon (bones in)
  • leafy greens: kale, Swiss chard, spinach, turnip greens, collards, turnip greens, bok choy… (Tip: Always add a splash of fresh lemon juice to your greens to help absorb the calcium.)
  • soy:  tofu, soy milk
  • figs
  • molasses
  • fortified cereal

The Acid Reflux Solution: GREAT NEWS!

My new book, The Acid Reflux Solution: A Cookbook and Lifestyle Guide for Healing Heartburn Naturally,  is chock full of easy lifestyle tips and over 100 recipes for preventing heartburn and losing weight at the same time. The exciting news is we popped at #14 on Amazon.com a few weeks ago, after Dr. Jorge appeared with Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on “The View.”

The Best Salad

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I like to think of salad as a bowl—or plate—of colorful vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vegetable protein, and who knows how much more.   Not to speak of great, refreshing taste and stimulating texture. Numerous studies have shown that populations with higher intake of vegetables have lower rates of many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. And salad as a side dish, starter or main course is a great way to increase both the amount and variety of vegetables you eat.

Here are half a dozen easy rules for making a GREAT salad.

Vary Your Vegetables:  Include cut-up or grated raw vegetables with lightly steamed. Brief cooking of some vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli, and cauliflower, enhances color, flavor and bioavailability of many vitamins and minerals. Greens might include velvety soft butter lettuce, pungent arugula, sturdy baby Russian kale, crisp Romaine, or pleasingly bitter Belgian endive or radicchio.

Make It Beautiful:  Whether it’s a tossed salad in a bowl or a beautifully composed salad on a plate, choose a variety of colors, textures and flavors.

Add Some Protein: Even just a couple of ounces of cheese, eggs, beans, seafood, chicken or lean meat will enhance the health benefits of your salad, especially if it is serving as your main dish at lunch or dinner.

Top with Seeds or Nuts:  Just a tablespoon or two of sunflower seeds or chopped walnuts or almonds add valuable omega-3’s and B vitamins.

Enhance with Fresh Herbs: Fresh chives, dill, basil, parsley, and mint are my favorites, but you can experiment with any you have on hand, not just as a garnish, but generously as a flavoring.

Dress It with Style: Spend what you can on the very best extra virgin olive oil, perhaps some toasted walnut oil, and an excellent vinegar, preferably sherry or Banyuls wine vinegar.  Forget about the classic 3:1 ratio, which never works quite right. Go for 2:1, with no mustard or sugar;\. Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of walnut oil, if you feel like it, and always include a teaspoon or two of fresh lemon juice. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. A teaspoon of minced shallot will also add spark.

Photo of vegetables in basket:  purneydesign.com

Should You Take a Daily Multivitamin?

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Some months ago, results of a Swedish study published in one of the premier scientific journals in the field, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed a startling association. After following over 35,000 women for 9 1/2 years, they noted that those who reported taking a multivitamin everyday had a 19% greater likelihood of developing breast cancer.  This was an unexpected finding, contrary to the protective association seen with increased intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and lower rates of many cancers. In trying to explain the results, they postulated it might be the folic acid in the pills that was accountable.

You see, folate is an extremely important B-vitamin, crucial for proper DNA replication. Lack of folate has been shown to result in increased birth defects, especially neural tube defects like spina bifida, which occur during the first few weeks of the embryo’s life. That’s one main reason the government started fortifying grains with folic acid. It’s easy to get enough folate from your food if you eat enough vegetables regularly, but many young women of childbearing age do not have healthy enough diets. At the same time, while over one-third of the adult population of America is clinically obese, ironically many of these individuals are actually under-nourished. They get more than enough calories, but not enough vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

The problem with multivitamins is that the artificial form of folate that is added to most pills, folic acid, enters the cell and interacts with another vital nutrient, vitamin B12, slightly differently. It’s actually much more bioavailable than the natural form, so that you get a big hit from the pill. But that may not be completely beneficial.

A subsequent meta-analysis, which is a grouping of lots of smaller studies so the results can be considered as if it were a really, really large study, did not find the same association between multivitamins and breast cancer. They found no statistical significance one way or another. However, given the gravity of the subject, they recommended further research be done on the subject.

My approach to nutrition is to encourage eating more delicious and colorful vegetables and fruits everyday, as well as a balance of other food groups, so that you maximize your nutrition in the most natural as well as most pleasurable way possible. Almost everyone thinks she or he is eating healthy. A registered dietitian or licensed nutritionist can measure your actual nutrient intake scientifically with enough accuracy to determine your individual needs and how well you are meeting them, which can be surprising.  For my clients who do require supplements, especially those over 40, I recommend locating a brand of multivitamin that contains a natural form of folate and taking the pill 3 or 4 times a week. With nutrition, as with many other things in life, too much of a good thing is not always helpful.

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Enjoy Natural Nutrients: Barley Coucous with Spring Vegetables

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Enjoy Natural Nutrients

Barley Couscous with Spring Vegetables

Barley is often overlooked as a whole grain, which is a shame because it has such a pleasing mild flavor and phenomenal chewy texture, a tip-off to its high fiber content. I like to pair it with a little fresh corn and a colorful assortment of vegetables.  This makes an admirable vegetarian main dish, but you can throw in some leftover roast (rotisserie) chicken at the end, if you like.   4 servings

  •  1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 cup pearled barley
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or 1/4 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cups fat-free chicken broth
  • 3 tablespoons dried currants
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch pieces
  • 1 small (6-ounce) sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3/4 cup corn kernels, preferably cut fresh from 1 ear
  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 to 4 baby broccoli spears, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 to 5 asparagus spears, tough ends removed, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a large skillet or stovetop casserole, cook the onion in the olive oil over moderate heat until it is soft and golden, about 5 minutes.  Add the barley, coriander, cinnamon, Aleppo pepper, saffron and salt. Stir for 2 to 3 minutes to toast. Pour in 2 cups water, cover, and cook until the barley is partially tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
  2. Add the chicken broth, currants, carrots, and sweet potato. Cook, partially covered, until the barley and vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes longer.
  3. Add the corn, zucchini and asparagus and cook until the green vegetables are just tender, 3 to 5 minutes.  Season with additional salt to taste and a generous grinding of black pepper.

I did it!

Hard to believe that almost exactly 4 years ago, I was preparing  to leave my 1869 farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, where we had filmed Thanksgiving for “Good Morning America” with Julia Child,  to make the biggest change of my life.  After a very long and happy career as a cookbook author and food editor, most notably at Food & Wine magazine,  I was leaving my home, friends, and livelihood, life as I knew it, to venture south into foreign territory–Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There I would spend an entire year taking the science courses required just to qualify for application to the combined program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which would earn me a Master’s Degree in Public Health and all preparation for certification as a registered dietitian.  I needed inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, human physiology, microbiology, introduction to psychology, sociology, nutrition, and biochemistry.  This for an English Major from the University of Chicago…  And there was no guarantee I’d be accepted. I even had to take the GREs!

Now I have my Master’s Degree in Public Health, with a Major in Nutrition, and am a fully accredited Registered Dietitian and Licensed Nutritionist. I practice medical nutrition therapy for chronic diseases and dietary counseling at my new company, Triangle Nutritional Wellness, which is located at Chapel Hill Doctors Integrative Health Center in Chapel Hill, NC. I use the latest evidence-based approaches to wellness, many of which I learned from my integrative work with Dr. Thomas Rau, when we collaborated on The Swiss Secret to Optimal Health.