September 28, 2013

My 100th Post - My Quest to the Quick'n'Healthy diet

It feels nice to reach a milestone by penning my 100th post. So I wanted to do something different this time around and it is not a recipe. Rather, it is a reflection of the past 3 years with my new blog and on our new lifestyle, along with our own experiences on how it has had a positive effect on me and my family. What better day than today, being the Family Health and Fitness Day 2013. I feel wonderful with my new lifestyle as I eat the food I love to my heart’s content, with no compromises on health, and you feel good about contributing to local communities and the environment. Hard to beat that feeling :-)




A background:
So here is a small background on the genesis of this blog. I have always had an interest in cooking and always look at trying new things. I came from a vegetarian family that was very concerned about health as well, so I did had a little background of healthy cooking. In fact, my dad has written a book on natural living back in India. I come from Kerala where the basic diet is still very healthy, though Indian food was becoming unhealthier by the day because as people got richer so did their food too.

Before coming into the US 13 years back, most people we were under the impression (like many others) that US is a very healthy country, with the likes of all the athletes/sportsmen and the Hollywood stars.  Even after coming into the country initially we felt that anything we get here is healthy, even things that come in boxes, as it comes from a reputed big company and with agencies like FDA/USDA, etc. there is strict control on all things related to food/health.  So all breakfast cereals were thought to be healthy and better than the steamed idli or puttu (I cringe now on the thought). The juices in the box looked nice were also thought to be better than water or coconut water and luckily we did not venture into Sodas yet. So gullible do we become ( in spite of the two of us having a master’s degree) and believe that capitalism ensures all checks and balances. Having said that, we cannot generalize on the country because there are also a lot of good things happening in the US that is outside of the mainstream, and even we started learning about most of the positive possibilities from here. 

The turning point and the learning:
Then a few things happened along in life that caused us to pause, ponder and question our lifestyle and our food choices. One was when I was diagnosed with a possibility of a medical condition (which thankfully was a false alarm). This made us do a lot of reading of the food we eat and we started to get more educated about good food choices and having a holistic view of health. The other is when my son’s class teacher read Michael Pollen’s ‘Omnivores Dilemma’ to the class, and my son used to come home every day and educate us on what he learnt from class. This got both of us interested (and excited at the same time) in learning more about the origin, ingredients, process involved in commercial food available. During this time, we also watched the movie Food Inc which was another eye opener. We were shocked to learn what we discovered from all of this, and the more we tried to dig in, the more bad news we found. There were quite a few around us who said that why try to find what is behind the food and then discover that we cannot eat them, so being ignorant was better. I beg to differ, and feel that the most important thing is for one to know and be aware of what is in the food, and then to make the optimal choice based on the situation. I can list down more than 100 things which might surprise many, but here are a few examples:
  • Organic: Most fresh fruits and veggies are loaded with pesticides that you cannot eat them raw or cooked, it is good to be aware of what are the worst produce on this list that you can look for organic produce. Many people know this, yet do not buy organics. In fact, there are some I know that say veggies/fruits are full of pesticides, so they prefer taking meat instead :-), which makes for a good joke but not funny in real life.
  • GMOs: A whole lot of food we eat in this country is genetically modified. It has very board effects on health and environment, and there is no way one can avoid GMO food. Most peanuts, corn, oats and rice produced in the US are GMO, and along with a hoard of other fruits and vegetables. GMOs are thought to be the major factor in the rise of allergies in the US, while also contributing to many other health issues. The shocking fact is all baby formula in the US is loaded with GMO stuff, and at the same time doctors ask parents to refrain from giving them some natural foods till they are 2-3, funny world we live in.
  • Breakfast cereals: These are the worst possible breakfast you can have as it is loaded with bad sugar and hoards of chemicals and unwanted stuff. Also, corn is the unhealthiest grain out there and Americans (humans and cattle alike) are being force fed corn by the food industry. Most people (including me) who had been on a good traditional breakfast moved to eat this junk thinking it is healthy, and I am glad that this was one of the first things I moved away from. I still know a lot of close friends with health conditions who eat only processed cereals in the morning thinking it will make them healthy.
  • Processed food: All food that come in boxes or packed is loaded with unknown chemicals, gmo ingredients, bad sugar and salt. Checkout the ingredients on the food you buy and if you cannot make sense out of it, then don’t buy it. After all, if you were to make it at home, you would understand each item when you look at the ingredient list. In general, if any item has more than 5 ingredients, there is something wrong with it, and in most cases a whole lot is wrong with it.
  • Special ingredients: There are many ingredients used by the food industry that we would not even imagine to consume as it is not food, yet they are in the majority of processed foods. One good example is Gelatin which is made from the waste from the meat and leather industry. It is made from pork, horses, and cattle/cow bones and skins, or split cattle hides. It is a key ingredient in most yogurts, gummy bears, fruit snacks, marshmallows, gelatin desserts and many more products targeted at kids. Most vegetarians are unaware of this and take all of this on a regular basis. I know most Indian vegetarians in the US use a lot of gelatin filled yogurt. Would it not be better if you know about this and then make the right choice?
  • The all-powerful food industry: This is one of the most powerful industry group in the country and only cares for profits. They consider everything in terms of how much money they can make per unit of land or per animal or per person, health of a customer does not matter. So their focus is in how they can get you addicted to processed/junk food and make you buy more of it. 


The change and our new guiding principles:
During the initial years the focus of my cooking was on taste and I also felt that if I cook at home, then it is usually healthy (which is still valid, but there are other factors). I have now realized that while cooking at home is important, what is more important are what we cook and how we cook (and do we really need to cook?). I have also realized that the real taste lies in the most natural of ingredients, and what we taste from store/restaurant is not the natural taste. We are not tied down with a specific diet, like to call ourselves as Flexiterians (flexible vegetarians). 

We are predominantly vegetarians, with a small dose of sustainably caught fish added to our diet. Vegan and raw food diets are wonderful and has their merits, and we love both of those concepts. I am not a vegan nor do I subscribe to a completely plant based diet. I understand the health benefits of getting your daily calorie intake as well as your nutrition intake from plant based food. I also understand the adverse effects of consuming large amounts of animal products. I give myself a few exceptions on my plant-based diet. I grew up in India, the land of Ayurveda and other ancient medicines. I have read about (and experienced as well) the medicinal, therapeutic and nutritional benefits of ghee. I believe that consuming ghee in small amounts is very beneficial if not essential. It has been used over centuries by Ayurvedic practitioners with good results. Another one is yogurt, which is an essential part of the South Indian diet. I believe the homemade yogurt is our best source of daily probiotics (which is so essential for health) and I am not ready to forgo that. Finally, milk, yogurt and ghee are essential part of our religion, tradition and folklore. Having said that, we have reduced our dairy intake and we try to get whole milk that is local and organic, and definitely not from a dairy factory. 

We have also supplemented milk with almond or coconut milk (both freshly prepared), and we have started liking cheese for the first time via cashew cheese :-). We also like to have wild caught fish once in a while. Try to have some of our diet to be raw. I also love to cook (and eat) our traditional Kerala dishes, which is in general on the healthy side. So while we are not vegans or vegetarians or raw-foodies, we are a mix of all of that and would like to call us as Flexitarians :-).

Here is what I consider as the guiding principles to my cooking:

Ingredients: Wholesome, natural, sustainable
  • Buy the most natural/wholesome form of the ingredients. So no coconut milk in cans for me, just pure coconut and I make the milk from it. Same with peanut/almond butter, I get raw organic nuts and make my own butter.
  • Completely eliminated processed food – any food that comes in a packet or can
  • Try to buy organic as much as possible, best is local organic, else local without pesticides, else organic from a grocery store like WholeFoods/Trader Joe’s.
  • Completely avoid GMO – the only way to do that is to stop buying any packed/processed foods, and buying local/organic
  • Always buy things which are good for the environment, the small farmers and for humans, and try to avoid things that cause harm. No, we are not Buddha or Gandhi, but it just makes us feel good, is that not a good reason?, maybe you can call us selfish :-)

Cooking process: Quick, Healthy, Raw or Mild cooking
  • I cook 3 meals a day and prefer to have freshly cooked food. I have been doing this all my life, while at work or while taking a break from work. 
  • Having a fulltime job, I have limited time available for cooking, so I prefer to make my cooking simple and quick. 
  • Raw is best, it tastes awesome and your body will say so too, but don’t restrict to just raw
  • I don’t overcook as it spoils the taste and kills the nutrients
  • If I don’t get the right ingredients, I look to substitute with another whole ingredient instead of getting the canned or bottled version of the original. 



The Results:
The change in our food choices was not a quick one step change, it has evolved over a period of 2-3 years and we are still evolving as we learn more. The first major change we did was in moving to consuming more vegetables, fruits and whole ingredients. We then switched to some organic produce and later to mostly organic and non-GMO, and included a lot of raw nuts into our food. The last step was in moving to a more raw-food and vegan based diet, and eliminating all processed/canned/packaged foods. I would not like to brag about the health improvements we have seen because one never knows what is in store in the future as there are a lot of things beyond our control, but we can still do things from our end and leave the rest to a higher element. Having said that, we believe food plays the biggest part in health and the results we have seen are very encouraging. In general, the instances of us getting sick has gone down drastically too. We also found that all our health numbers changed to the positive side, including good cholesterol increasing and bad cholesterol decreasing (raw nuts and coconut did the trick), our sugar levels went down (though we took more natural sugars via fresh fruits/juice, dates, honey and palm sugar). One could see change on the physical side too, especially for me. My husband and son did not have much to lose, but even for them the change was there to see. As for me, I have tried to shed a few pounds in the past via exercise and different diets, but here all I did was to eat what I liked and in a matter of 6 months I became lighter by 25 pounds. I was quite surprised too, but I know and realize that there is a lot of power behind good food. 

What we feel about the change:
Beyond the looks and numbers, what is more important is the fact that we feel so good mentally also with our food choices as it has so many benefits:

  • Eating the food we love, all made at home and fresh
  • Food that is tasty and immensely healthy, and made with the best ingredients (organic fruits, vegetables and grains in its most natural form)
  • Food that is ethical and does not harm animals or the environment
  • Food via sustainable methods that provides for future generations
  • Support small organic farmers and local communities, and thus share the profits instead of it going into large multinational firms
  • Works out cheaper too as we avoid all processed foods
  • Make ourselves healthier and look better
  • Make us feel good about what we do



So that is the story of my blog.  Thank you for reading. Next time I promise, I will be back with a recipe. Now off to some biking as part of Family Health and Fitness Day 2013.

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