Tag Archives: Health

Cruel, Cruel Universe

Man milking a cow the old-fashioned way
Image via Wikipedia

It all started last January. I had a bit of a dose of Gastroenteritis that thankfully cleared up quickly. Shortly after that I started to have other almost random, gastric problems. Without getting into too much detail (suffice it to say, that it was not pleasant for me or anyone in the vicinity) this went on for 3 months of trips to the doctor, days missed in college, tests in James hospital, until the doctor announces that through process of elimination there are 2 possible causes of my symptoms, Lactose Intolerance or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

There was some discussion about IBS because there was no way (as I explained to my doctor) the universe could be this cruel to me. But that discussion came to an end pretty quickly when “invasive procedures” were mentioned and I began a 2 week lactose free diet the very next day.

I was so convinced that the universe could not be this cruel that I stopped at the shop on the way home and spend about €5 on chocolate, Sausage rolls and chocolate milk. You see where I’m going here. I was going to prove that doctor wrong and not need to do the lactose free diet because I had digested the equivalent of a cow’s worth of dairy and been fine…

a short while later…

Stomach cramps

While running for the nearest toilet\: “oh god, oh god, oh god Nooooo, I’m going to have to do this damn dairy free thing!”

And skip forward to my sudden realisation that the universe can be a bit of a dick!

I guess the best thing that happened to me while doing the 2 weeks without dairy in my diet was having someone who has lived with lactose intolerance to talk to. Not just about good options to use instead of milk, butter etc. But also because they understand more than most just how much food contains dairy in one form or another and how much this can limit your options when eating out, or at other events.

It was amazing how quickly the symptoms that had ruled my life for 3 months cleared up and disappeared just by removing dairy from my diet. I’ve discovered since that by not taking milk in my breakfast, tea or coffee I can handle small amounts of dairy used in cooking, not enough that I would think about eating a Pizza slice, but enough to know that if something was cooked with butter then I shouldn’t feel too much discomfort.

I was toying with the idea that I would occasionally take the discomfort hit for a good meal or the occasional treat, when I remembered a conversation I had a few years ago with one of Elly’s co-workers who was lactose intolerant. It was just after he had downed a steak with garlic butter. I was curious about why he would risk the dairy, would it not make him ill?

Turns out, he had taken a pill at the beginning of the meal, a lactase supplement (lactase is what allows us to digest dairy), which meant he could eat pretty much anything for about an hour after that. It wasn’t something that he did for every meal, it’s less hassle and more cost-effective to simply not eat dairy most of the time but at least he had the option to eat dairy every now and again as a treat or when eating out.

So, I went and did a bit of research online and found that I hadn’t dreamt this up and that I could buy a lactase supplement from Amazon. (Unfortunately, pharmacies in Ireland don’t stock adult lactase tablets.) I did and I’m happy to say that Kirkland’s “Fast Acting Lactase” tablets really work for me, I just take one with my first bite of dairy and I have no discomfort. If I’m eating for more than an hour I simply take an extra tablet and I’m good for another hour.

It means that while I can (and will) learn to cook lactose free food for myself and adjusting what I eat to make up for the lost nutrients, I still have the option, if I’m eating away from home, to pop a tablet and not have to worry about the possible downside.

Family Meals

Family meals mean something different to everyone, but for me it’s any meal that is taken sitting at a table, preferably with good company, good food and good conversation. No, the office desk is not a table and Twitter/Facebook/Instant Messaging is not good company, but will do in a push, there might be something to be said for video chat although I’m not so sure I want to be on the receiving end even if I’m eating at the same time.

There are a lot of reasons that this ‘Family’ style of meal has evolved in numerous different cultures through the centuries and not all of them are down to practical reasons like the lack of a microwave to re-heat a meal, or social reasons the human beings need to talk and bond.

For me the most important reason is the lack of distractions, this allows you time to think about what you’re eating; yes, you may be discussing the news of the day or the meal itself with someone but your attention isn’t focused on the television or your laptop or and without that distraction your mind will try to fill in the space by thinking more about what you’re eating, how it tastes and maybe even where your meal came from.

This has a number of benefits, not least of which is that you will experience your food rather than simply tasting it. You will consciously think about the textures, flavours and so on. I almost always find myself wanting to talk about how a family meal was cooked and it’s the discussion that slows down our eating (another benefit) and eating slower also means that we generally eat less (another benefit)

This is before we have even thought about the benefit of the social aspect of a family meal. The mere act of sitting and breaking bread together is something that helps bring people together. After all, one of the single best things we can do to improve our mental health is to talk, it’s as much a requirement for healthy living in humans as the food we eat.

You’d think that having a family meal a day would be standard practice for everyone with all these benefits but it’s unfortunately a tradition that is dying out. There are many reasons/excuses given for this, modern life and working hours, the hassle of actually cooking, timing the cooking so everything is ready at once and that old classic, I don’t have the time.

That last one always annoys the hell out of me, if you don’t have time to do something that is so important to your health and well being as eating, well then you’ll never have enough time for anything else.

Timing the cooking of different elements of a meal can be tricky and sometimes I find potatoes taking longer to cook than I expect or cooking much quicker, that’s why we have ovens. More importantly, that’s why we have one pot meals like stews and pies. With a little practice when timing isn’t as critical you will quickly develop skills to get it right more times than not and eventually every time or at least the skills to fake it 😉

The hassle of cooking? Please give it a rest, unless you plan on eating alone then you have people around to help, get them involved as you need. Most people will be only to happy to help and can do a task, like chopping the veg or stirring the pot etc. with only a little input from you. This not only makes the task easier for you, but it shares the skills with others, adds to the social aspect and people who help prepare a meal are far less likely to criticise it and far more likely to enjoy it.

The modern life one, can be a bit of a bugger though sometime people aren’t working the same hours so it can be difficult to schedule, but you should still make the effort to have a family meal as often as possible, if for no other reason than it helps to repair the damage that the modern life and weird hours can have on the human condition.

Nutritional Science

It’s been around for a long time and we should trust it absolutely, shouldn’t we?

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading about food and nutrition is a big part of that, after all what’s the point in me sharing these recipes if I don’t have the first clue about the nutritional value, I could be recommending recipes that while they may not be toxic in the “comic book – one bite and you’re dead sense”, could very easily be missing a vital nutrient or have excessive amounts of calories or a dozen other “problems” that could lead to a slow and painful death.

So I’ve taken to trying to find out as much as I can about nutrition and nutritional science. It’s actually a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. The thing that has struck me though is how much we trust nutritionist to decide what we will eat on a day to day basis, when the science is really in it’s infancy.

It was less than 200 years ago that Liebig first discovered the make up of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, marking the start of the science of nutrition. At the time people thought that was all there was to food, no worries about vitamins, minerals etc. but then later came the discoveries of those and then that was added to what we thought was all that was important in food, then came more discoveries and those were added as well, until we get to where we are today and we think we know everything about food.

To put it simply we don’t and along the journey so far many missteps have been taken in the name of nutritional science. For example we believe that a low fat diet reduces the risk of heart disease. If so, why have we seen more and more heart disease as more and more of us move to a low fat diet?

The thing is there is a lot to be said for nutritional science as well, but the human race has tended to put far too much faith in nutritionists (in my opinion) and not enough in where we got our nutritional information from historically. This is basically those traditional recipes handed down through the generations that we have all tasted. These recipes and cuisines have survived because the people eating them have survived and thrived. If the food was killing them then they would have either changed and evolved what they were eating or simply died out.

Somewhere in the last two hundred years though we decided to ignore this obvious fact and put our faith completely in science before the science actually knew as much as our ancestors did about what we were eating.

The more I learn about nutrition the more I realise just how wise our ancestors were, they didn’t eat processed packaged foods, they ate meals cooked with fresh ingredients, that were mostly grown locally or grown wild.

The thing the science can confirm for us is that the fresher the food, the more nutrients, vitamins, minerals etc. are present but shure yer Great-Granny/Granny/Mammy could have told you that 😉

What do you think, do you trust your Great-Granny/Granny/Mammy more than the Scientists?

The Human Grazer

Go back into the dim dark past of man as a species, back to when the homosapien had just evolved. What you find is a race of hunter-gatherers, wandering and grazing the land as he goes and occasionally finding and killing an animal for the meat and skins.

Now fast forward to today and what you find is a species that has moved to a largely sedentary lifestyle, eats 3 meals a day and has meat most if not every day. I am generalising a bit, ignoring the vegetarian/vegan types and completely ignoring those with special dietary requirements but are any of us surprised that there is an epidemic of obesity in the western world at the moment?

As a species the physical demands on us are the lowest they have ever been throughout history, food is the most plentiful to us that it’s ever been and our nature is to make the most of this abundance of food by eating and storing the energy as fat.

This would be fine if food wasn’t always available to us, our nature is to over-eat when food is available to “survive” the leaner periods, but as we have an abundance of food this leaner period never comes and as a species we get more and more obese.

If we go back to freshly evolved man for a minute and think about him wandering through the country side, picking berries and fruit as he passes them, essentially grazing the land, while hunting. He wasn’t sitting down to 3 meals a day, he was gathering food and eating it as he became hungry, possibly having a meal of meat once or twice a week.

We on the other hand have those 3 times a day when we load up on food and while it’s a social construct that I happen to like and enjoy it’s actually widely accepted that in order to keep our metabolic rate at it’s most efficient we should all be eating less just more often.

This is something I learned when I was morbidly obese myself and my doctor was trying to help me understand what I needed to do in order to lose the weight. I never got to the point of eating every 4 hours and only at these intervals like he had suggested but I grew to understand that while it’s okay to be a little hungry and to eat a little less, you can also gain weight by over doing this, due to your metabolism slowing down, this is our natural defence against famine kicking in.

The best way to achieve this goal of eating less and remaining healthy that I’ve found is to remove as much processed food as possible from your diet. By cooking your own meals from fresh ingredients you have much better control over what’s in your food and as a general rule fresh ingredients have much higher levels of nutrients and vitamins than processed foods. (High quality frozen and tinned fruit and veg can be the exception to this rule as they’re picked when they are at their best and the process of freezing or tinning them preserves them).

So with fresh ingredients it’s easier to get the nutritional value that your body needs, without overdoing the calorie intake.

A Nutritional Dilemma

I’ve been reading and researching trying to find information on nutrition as opposed to healthy eating. It’s part of my quest for knowledge and while there are a lot of sites out there giving tips on “healthy eating” very few give detailed information about actual nutrition and let’s face it without knowing what we need how can we eat the most appropriate food?

Food Pyramid
image via hair_k on flickr

We knew eating processed and delivered meals was not good for us (Elly and myself) so we made the switch to cooking from fresh as much as possible and we’ve both seen benefits and I don’t just mean the self-satisfaction that comes from eating a meal you prepared yourself, I mean we have both lost a lot of weight, our skin is clearer, we look and feel better, we argue less and discuss more, we find it easier to focus and be more productive, the benefits and differences we have seen are so worth making the effort – but I want more!

And here’s the rub, I don’t know if we’re actually getting a fully balanced diet, I mean sure we’re eating from the right food groups but are we getting the right quantities of each? What could we eat more (or less) of? These are the questions that I’m not getting answered.

I’ve tried getting in touch with An Bord Bia, I’ve googled my fingers to the nub. So far the closest thing I have found to an answer is this page on Wikipedia. I wonder if there are any nutritionists or dietitians reading that could offer some advice or point me in the right direction with a link or two?