Category Archives: healthy living

WIPING THE STRESS AWAY

Not quite this relaxed

“You look so good!” a few people remark “Even your voice has changed”

“How so?” I ask

“There is no edge to it”, a colleague volunteers, which makes me wonder at the harshness of my voice on any other day.

The truth is that, since I took the decision to leave my job, I do feel like my stress level has decreased substantially. On my days off, I don’t check e-mails or voice mails, I don’t think about work at all, really. And, guess what?, when I walk back into work, the place is still standing and nothing much has changed since I left.

I did love my job and the powers that be above me only occasionally made my life difficult. Since I started to let go, gradually, I realized that all the stress and the worries were created entirely by me. Or mostly. My sense of duty, my need for perfectionism and the possibility of staying connected even when not at work, created the perfect storm that made me feel like I had to be the boss, even when I was walking my dogs, or lying on the couch reading a book.

I am under no illusion that I will not feel stress ever but, watching first hand, in these last few weeks, how my mild detachment had a positive impact on my life (and the lines on my face) will hopefully be a good reminder on how things should be. Walking away from perceived difficulties can give us the perspective we need to find better solutions. The same adage that” nobody is irreplaceable” can be turned into “nobody needs to connected 24/7”. If my sense of duty plays a large part in my behaviour, I also blame these ridiculous work ethics that have become the norm in most industries.

Today I walked away from the kitchen at 1 o’clock, during the lunch rush, to have lunch with a client. Not that I would choose to do that on any given day but we were fully staffed, everyone was in a good flow and I had no qualms sitting down to enjoy some of our food. “Call me if the places catches fire”. And I meant it.

When I got back an hour later, the restaurant was still there, in the same flow. What a surprise!

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BACK TO THE MAT

Image from healthcare9.com

A colleague sits in my office for half and hour and pours her heart out about her relationship problems. A friend calls me to ask advice on a recent quarrel she had with another woman. At the same time, my cell phone rings – another girlfriend, newly divorced, asking if she could stop by for a cup of tea (and for dissecting her defunct marriage). Emma’s post about a young person dying. Maybe that is why I feel incredibly sad, weighed down by so much sadness. Or maybe I should start believing in horoscopes and this has all to do with Venus transiting across the sun or one such astronomical happening I don’t know much about.

After 17 years of working things out on a yoga mat, falling in and out of love with yoga but always sticking with it, it’s a yoga mat I want to be on tonight. This intense desire hasn’t manifested in a while. Oh, I still go to class religiously, I even have a yoga app on my i-Pad for when I am too lazy to come up with routines and want to practice at home, but too often I feel like I am just going through the motions. I might have fun, I might get a kick out of it, a good workout or a good relaxation but the proverbial thrill had gone.

Yet, it was to a mat I took my sadness tonight, for a long yin classes with very few poses held for sometimes unbearably long minutes. When I leave class, the sadness has not gone but the weight has lifted enough to come home, eat dinner, sit at my laptop with enough enthusiasm to write a little.

Very few daily activities take me inside the way yoga does. My mother favours ironing but, unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited that gene. Getting my nose to my knees does it for me. Or dipping my hands into flour. When too much baking takes place in my kitchen, some problem or sadness is clearly being worked out.

And I am intensely grateful for these physical activities that are able to steer me back into harbour. Sometimes sticking with something, even when the thrill has gone, has its unexpected rewards.

 

 

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Filed under healthy living, self-help, yoga

EVIL SUGAR (and how it works in baking)

Evil sugar and its healthier cousins

One of my best friends is, temporarily, on a restricted diet and lamenting the loss of sugar. Like me, actually even more so, she has a phenomenally sweet tooth and no meal is complete without something sweet enjoyed at the end of it. I have been limiting my sugar intake for a few years now, with complete abstinence during my 6 week yearly cleanse and, like most addictions, it has become easier and easier to eat less sugar – although I don’t think I could conceive of a life without it. My daily dose of dark chocolate testifies to that.

When I talk about sugar, I obviously intend the refined variety, and I include brown sugar (which is just sugar and molasses) and all those kinds that might be less refined such as Demerara or sugar in the raw but just mildly less unhealthy. No need to explain the famous sugar high or what the white powder does to your teeth but, recently, scientists have established a pretty solid link between sugar and cancer. Refined cane or beet sugar is a very recent addition to the human diet. Our forebears went for many centuries without it, until it was introduced in the late 1400’s and, even then, it didn’t become commonplace until the end of the 18th century as it was too expensive for anyone but the upper classes (earlier civilizations in Asia consumed sugar cane as early as 400 AD but certainly not in vast amounts).

What has worked for me, in my attempt to lower my sugar intake, include changing the way I think of breakfast that, most days, means a gigantic smoothie of fresh and frozen fruit, almond milk, a bit of avocado, protein powder and a splash of agave syrup. To my coffee, nowadays I add Stevia. On my hot cereal, I will pour either agave or maple syrup, and chopped dates have helped sweeten my home-made granola. I have passed all these suggestions on to my poor friend who, to her credit, has followed them to the letter but she is still begging for sugar-free dessert recipes. I know she means cakes and that is tricky.

Baking, more than an art, is a perfect alchemy of ingredients. Take one out and the whole sand castle falls apart. Substituting sugar in baking that is predicated on a batter rising is incredibly hard. Let’s look at why.

Sugar has many properties, amongst which the ability to inhibit gluten development, thereby making baked goods tender. It also does that by drawing water to its molecules – if one of your creations turns out a bit too dry, you might be able to overcome that by adding a bit more sugar.

Sugar caramelizes at 330F and it’s responsible for the pretty browning of your baked goods. Above all, it helps with the rising. Without going into too many chemical details, when you beat sugar and butter (or any other fat), the molecular structure of the sugar makes little tears in the fat, creating tiny pockets of air that will expand in the oven. Now you can see why substituting stevia, xylitol or other sweeteners is not going to create the same effect.

Xylitol (a sugar alcohol found in many plants and safe for diabetics) can be used with a 1:1 sugar ratio for any chewy baked goods (soft cookies, some muffins) but don’t expect it to brown. I like agave syrup better than honey, as the taste of honey is too distinctive; it can overpower a dessert and it’s harder to marry with other flavours. When using agave syrup, a good rule of thumb is to use 25% less than the recipe calls in sugar.

Once again, I have been going on at too much length. For a delectable sugar-free dessert, you will have to stay tuned.

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Filed under baking, cooking, desserts, healthy living

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES

When I turned 21, I was admitted to the smokers’ pantheon  by none other than my father who, casually, offered me a post luncheon cigarette. Both my parents smoked, it was the thing to do in the ‘50s and 60’s, with my mother the more ardent one, clocking in close to two packs a day. And both parents had to give it up, my father under the threat of heart disease and my mother after a bad bronchitis that led her to think she might have lung cancer. She stopped cold turkey.

My love affair with nicotine lasted just about 6 months – being prone to laryngitis and faringytis wasn’t conducive to happy smoking but that short spell was long enough to make me appreciate the taste of tobacco. They say that some people pick up smoking out of nervousness, needing something to do with their hands, which explains why they might end up inhaling menthol cigarettes or any of the “light” brands. Not me. I actually loved the taste of Marlboro or, even better, Camel. Strong, earthy, slightly acrid and nutty, they were a real pleasure.

Over the following 20 odd years since my smoking days, I picked up a fag or two along the way, always a Marlboro or a Camel – after a few puffs, the taste in my mouth turned me off and, were that not enough, a major headache promptly ensued. But I still say that tobacco and coffee could be one of those unhealthy matches made in heaven.

What got me thinking about smoking was the oversize, bright blue envelope that I found at the bottom of my mailbox today. It wasn’t addressed to me but to somebody who doesn’t live here anymore and who, in all likelihood, signed up for it. Inside was brightly printed material of a humorous nature disguising coupons for Camel cigarettes. Not only could the addressee buy a couple of  discounted packs but she could also win up to $50,000, “enough to make you resign your job” – or so it said. In all fairness, all over this crap was the usual Surgeon General’s Warning – Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide as opposed to Smoke This and Your Death Will Surely Be Hastened – but I found it in poor taste to hook up young people with the promise of prizes when what is contained inside a filter is already enough to hook them up.

Thanks to my weak throat and the unhappy state of my tonsils, I dodged this particular bullet. It’s a free country and everybody of age is entitled to do as they please, within the limits of a sometime contradictory law. But I don’t see any merit in trying to help addiction along.

 

 

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KITCHEN SAFETY

Could it be that you are putting your health at risk every time you eat out? Some doctors seem to think so. Apparently food borne illnesses have arisen in recent years, including bacterial infections that can fester and reproduce for months before becoming apparent. A doctor of my knowledge pinpointed the escalation of such illnesses to people’s increasing habits of eating out or purchasing pre-made food. But what is really going on in the mysterious kitchens of restaurants, from fast food chains, taco trucks and high-end establishments?

If you happen to live in LA, a big blue letter is affixed on the door of every restaurant, to indicate that the Health Department has inspected that location and deemed it a very safe place to eat (A), as having some problems (B) that can be easily corrected or eat at your own risk (C). In case of vermin infestations, lack of hot water or plumbing problems, the restaurant will be closed until the necessary measures have been taken. But the Health Department only visits restaurants every 6 months at best and it is true that a lot can go wrong with food.

Most reputable restaurants possess a kitchen culture that takes all the necessary precautions to keep food safe. The biggest threat is cross contamination –  as in the same cutting board used to cut some raw chicken, quickly wiped and then reused to cut vegetables. Or a cook visiting the restrooms, not washing his or her hands at all or correctly and then going on to handle food. It’s a chefs’ job to continually educate the staff and keep a vigilant eye. But it’s most often the correct cooking, heating or cooling of food that can cause problems: slightly undercooked chicken, a turkey sandwich left in a slightly malfunctioning cold case for hours, a hollandaise sauce kept on the line during brunch at the wrong temperature can all cause havoc with your tummy. Food kept at the wrong temperature long enough can and will grow bacteria.

So, are you putting your health in the hands of strangers every time you eat out? Partially. Most kitchens I have seen are spotless but I have also been in some that left me horrified and they were not necessarily  Chinese take outs in obscure mini-malls. Chains like McDonald’s are usually pretty safe because no food is actually prepared on the premises – everything is frozen and dropped in a fryer or on a griddle.

But if most commercial kitchens are well versed in the proper procedures of preparing and handling food, what happens in a home kitchen? Think about it – do you all possess different cutting boards, that you keep separate and use for different products (meat/fish/vegs)? How long has your germ infested dish sponge been sitting in your sink? Any loosely packaged meat on the top shelf of the fridge dripping on something below? Do you take the temperature of the food you cook? Do you wash your hands under 100 degrees water for 20 seconds every time you switch from one food category to the next? I didn’t think so.

Maybe the doctor is right and our habit of eating out at every opportunity (think of the dangers of sushi) is contributing to food borne illnesses but I am fairly sure that poor controlling at the manufacturing level and our own personal habits play a part. Has anybody ever driven home with left overs from a restaurant, forgotten them in the car and still reheated them many hours later and then consumed them? Yes, bad idea.

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THE TOMATO RANT

If you had to choose between living without tomatoes between October and May and be surprised anew every Summer by fruit perfectly ripened and bursting with flavor or having tomatoes all year round, the watery and flavorless variety, which way would you go? Apparently, the latter. Sorry my friends, I am on a tomato rant. What is prompting my rage is having recently found out that, not only are we importing tomatoes during the winter months from the usual suspects, Florida and Mexico, but now enormous greenhouses are being built in states like Maine and in Canada to have artificially ripened tomatoes closer to home.

It might sound like a benign enterprise. Don’t be fooled – it’s not. These greenhouses are as large as a medium size city, I kid you not, and as natural light during the winter doesn’t even come close to what is necessary to ripen tomatoes, powerful lights are kept on to simulate sunlight. Not to mention the gas emissions that go into heating these facilities. When all is said and done, even factoring in the rising cost of jet fuel, the carbon emissions that go into flying a tomato from Florida or Mexico are lower than the ones from a tomato artificially grown 10 miles from your local supermarket. Have we all gone mad??

Most of us don’t spend enough of our precious time thinking about where our food comes from and we certainly don’t ask enough questions. My rage mounted when I read that the manager of such a greenhouse described the tomatoes he was growing as a fruit that his  mother and grandmother would scarcely approve of but that will make his children happy. It’s not exactly news that we are sacrificing quality, flavor and nutritional content as time goes by but that it’s being done  while further contributing to the demise of our planet is a travesty.

Are we so attached to having a slice of flavorless tomato on our burger all year round that we would otherwise stay away? Yes, most of the tomatoes grown in America are for the benefit of the fast food industry. Do we really need to have tomatoes in every salad we make during the winter months, even knowing that their nutritional content is not the same as the one in the tomatoes we can buy at the height of summer?

As long as we mindlessly navigate the aisles of the supermarkets, filling our carts without asking ourselves what is local, what is seasonal or if we really need to have exotic fruit on our table every day, the food industry will keep on taking advantage of our laziness and the ingrained habits they helped us form.

There is so much in our lives we cannot control – what we put inside our body, what we feed our children, our friends and our families is where we can make a difference. A bigger one than we think: our choices as consumers have the power to affect global warming, the obesity epidemic and hence healthcare costs, not to mention quality of life. If you do nothing else, please, at least, ask questions.

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Filed under food, healthy living