Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Amazing Grace: The digestive and emotional benefits of mealtime grace

When our eldest son was five, we started to say grace at mealtime. Untrained in matters of gastronomic spirituality, we began by rolling a wooden cube inscribed with six child-friendly, non-denominational prayers: whichever verse landed face-up was recited.

Soon we got bored of rattling off the same six prayers and decided to wing it. Now we no longer call it grace and we don't couch it in religious terms (though the children like to finish with a rousing 'Amen!' every now and then), but we find it hard to begin a meal without a brief moment of calm.

Grace and gratitude are closely related (the Latin gratia means 'good will' or 'gratitude'). At home, we now refer to mealtime grace as the 'Thankfulness Moment.' Much like a Thanksgiving dinner, every person at the table expresses his or her gratitude for something.

When we are eating meat or fish, for instance, our 8-year-old son always thanks the animal for giving its life for us. His twin sister often gives thanks for family and friends. Our teenage son is often grateful for the fact that we are all together at the table, or that it's Friday. My husband and I give thanks for children, health and a comfortable home.

When children are jittery or parents tired, we sometimes hold a 'silent grace' where we link hands and sit quietly for as long as the children can bear (about one or two minutes). A note of caution: when young children are present, make sure you keep your food warm during grace; their thanksgiving can go on for quite a while as they express gratitude for teachers, friends, the weather, pets, a snuggly pyjama or a favourite soft toy.

Mealtime grace doesn't have to be a religious act. If for no other reason, saying grace - some would prefer to call it 'meditating/relaxing before a meal' - is worth adopting because it has a strong bearing on nutritional health. For as we settle for the moment of calm that precedes the meal, our body relaxes and our organs prepare to digest and absorb the food we are about to eat.

At the thought, sight and smell of food, gastric juices start flowing, enzymes are secreted, and the body stops whatever it is doing to relax and welcome the incoming nourishment. Our in-built fight-or-flight stress response, which dates back to our hunter-gatherer days and which halts digestive processes at times of stress, is suspended, making way for digestion and absorption.

Indeed, scientists have found that eating in a relaxed state may be even more healthful than chewing one's food thoroughly! In one study, subjects who ate complex carbohydrates under stressful conditions secreted less of the carbohydrate-digesting enzyme amylase than those eating under relaxed conditions. The study's authors conclude that "deep relaxation was significantly more important than thorough chewing in the oral digestion of complex carbohydrates." Stress has also been shown to cause trouble further down the digestive tract, disrupting the gut flora and contributing to the development of food allergies (see this study).

Grace doesn't just boost your digestive system though. In recent years, psychologists have turned their attention to the study of gratitude, and not surprisingly, they have found that our ability to experience and express gratitude is a key determinant of our overall health and happiness.

"Gratitude leads people to act in virtuous or more selfless ways," according to Northeastern University psychologist David de Steno. "And it builds social support, which we know is tied to both physical and psychological well being."

But there's a catch: gratitude only ‘works' if you express it on a regular basis. "If you don't do it regularly you're not going to get the benefits," notes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside. "It's kind of like if you went to the gym once a year. What would be the good of that?"

According to Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, people who express gratitude are less resentful, experience longer and better-quality sleep, exercise more and report a drop in blood pressure. "The practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by around 25%," he estimates.

For many people I know, the past few years have been difficult. Some have experienced economic hardship and employment worries, others have endured ill health and troubled personal relationships.

When life is tough, it's hard to feel grateful. But it's precisely when we feel down that it may be most helpful to tap into feelings of gratitude. When I sit down and focus on things to be grateful for (people who are more organised than me keep a 'gratitude diary,' something I may start in the New Year...), I usually begin by being thankful for small blessings: the purring of the cat on my lap or the comforting warmth of my sweater.

This quickly brings me to big blessings: the food on my table, the chatter of my children, my husband who shares my burdens, hopes and dreams, friends who will listen on the phone or over a cup of tea. As I consider these gifts, I feel suffused by a warm glow of gratitude, and feelings of sadness, hurt and anger recede.

For this is the beauty of gratitude: you can't be simultaneously angry and grateful, or depressed and grateful, or selfish and grateful. Gratitude is the most potent counterforce to egoism, ruthlessness, greed and the many other masks behind which unhappiness hides. By forcing ourselves to experience, and to express, gratitude -- if only once a day, at mealtimes -- we can rise above the darker side of human nature.

So why can't we all show a little more gratitude? According Emmons, "some people feel uncomfortable talking about these topics, since they may sound too spiritual, or religious. Others simply don't want to feel obligated to the person who helped them, and never come to realize the boost in energy, enthusiasm, and social benefits that come from a more grateful, connected life."

Here's wishing you a Thanksgiving filled with light, peace and a healthy digestion!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mediterranean diet gets UNESCO's stamp of approval

Increasingly under threat from mass-produced fast-food, the Mediterranean diet received a boost this week when the United Nations' culture and education agency UNESCO added it to its list of cultural heritage worth preserving and promoting.

A press release issued after the meeting of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage highlights the Mediterranean diet's widely-accepted healthfulness. But to me, at least as important is the agency's emphasis on the socio-cultural elements of the Mediterranean diet.

"The Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing."

The UNESCO also notes that women play "a particularly vital role in the transmission of expertise, as well as knowledge of rituals, traditional gestures and celebrations, and the safeguarding of techniques."

This is an interesting point, for one reason why home-cooked family meals are in decline in the Mediterranean region is the increased number of women who work outside the home. (See this article about the sharp rise in obesity around the Mediterranean following the marked shift in nutritional habits and demographic trends.) Of course I do not 'blame women' for abandoning home-cooking; I blame social structures that make it very difficult for women and men to both work and prepare healthy, natural food for their families.

The request for recognition of the diet was made by the governments of Italy, Spain, Greece and Morocco. Each of these countries is now committed to undertaking a series of safeguarding efforts, together with a plan for transnational measures aimed at ensuring transmission to younger generations and promoting awareness of the Mediterranean diet.

Some commentators have dismissed the Mediterranean diet's inclusion on the UNESCO's heritage list as PR gimmickry, or, more cynically still, as part of a marketing ploy to boost Mediterranean olive-oil sales. Citing varied cuisines around the Mediterranean basin, they also claim that there is no such thing as a distinct 'Mediterranean diet' and therefore no cultural heritage to preserve.

These cynics are missing the point. Cuisines vary around the Mediteranean because of the different climatic, geological, historical and cultural environments that shaped them. Yet, despite superficial differences, there is more that unites than divides them. For the traditional pre-industrial diets eaten in the whole region were, almost without exception, characterised by a high intake of vegetables, fruits, pulses, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, a moderate intake of fish, dairy and meat and accompanied by red wine (religious practices permitting).

Incidentally, anyone who is familiar with Mediterranean cuisines knows that many countries have similar dishes that go by different names: for example, Italy's pesto is virtually the same as the pistou of French Provence, which closely resembles the romesco sauce of Spain's Catalunya region or north African chermoula.

Meanwhile, to those who accuse the olive oil growers of dark and scheming motives, I say: the Mediterranean diet is precious precisely because, apart from olive oil and perhaps red wine, it is largely anti-commercial, being based on unprocessed, fresh food that offers slim profit margins to producers. It is the exact antithesis of the sort of diet the industrial food giants would have us eat, one that consists almost entirely of processed and denatured 'food-like edible substances' that are making us sick and fat.

Indeed, if everyone started eating a Mediterranean diet - fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers' markets, homemade whole-grain bread, eggs from chickens scratching in the back yard, meat and milk from animals raised on nearby meadows, etc. - the industrial food giants would soon be out of business.

Luckily for them, this isn't going to happen anytime soon, because, among others, many people below the age of 30 don't know how to produce or prepare food from scratch, nor do they remember the taste of fresh, natural, unadulterated food. Long working hours, competitive labor markets, uninspired school and workplace cafeterias and the ever-present lure of tasty but unnutritious convenience fare will ensure that young palates remain undemanding, even to the point of preferring a factory-made poultry nugget to a home-roasted chicken!

So while putting the Mediterranean diet on a list of threatened lifestyles is probably not enough to restore an ailing food culture, I think every effort is worth undertaking it if it means raising public awareness just that teeny little bit. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe that if more people ate a Mediterranean diet and enjoyed the life-affirming lifestyle that goes with it, the world could be a healthier and happier place.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Humble fruits that pack a powerful punch

For too long, plums, and especially their dried incarnations, prunes, have gotten a bum rap. This is mostly because of their unfortunate association with constipation, which they relieve quickly and naturally thanks to their high fiber content.

However, as we feast on this year's crop of this delicious stone fruit, it's time to stop snickering and start appreciating this humble stone fruit's many other health benefits. For in addition to their laxative qualities, plums, and their cousins, peaches and nectarines, appear to have cancer-fighting properties.

Animal and test-tube experiments have yielded promising results. Most recently, scientists at Texas A&M University discovered that breast cancer cells died after being treated with peach and plum extracts. The researchers treated healthy cells and breast cancer cells (including an aggressive non-hormone-dependent strain) with extracts from yellow-fleshed ‘Rich Lady' peaches and red-fleshed ‘Black Splendor' plums - both commercially available varieties.

"These extracts killed the cancer cells but not the normal cells," reports Luis Cisneros-Zevallos, Food Scientist and Associate Professor at Texas A&M University. "Our studies in vitro show the potential for selective killing of cancer cells, and our studies with mice have confirmed that these compounds inhibit metastasis," he adds. (Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body.) Indeed, the effect of the fruit extract was strongest on the aggressive, non-hormone dependent cancer cells that most commonly metastasize, he notes. The research was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

What makes plums and prunes (coyly renamed ‘dried plums' by American prune marketers wishing to shake the stigma of geriatric constipation...) even more appealing is their low glycemic index (GI) ranking. (Anything below 55 is considered low.) According to the University of Sydney's Glycemic Index Database, prunes have a GI of 29, even below low-GI apricots (around 31) and half that of raisins (between 54 and 66). Foods with a high GI-value are thought to contribute to weight gain - a cancer risk factor - and the secretion of hormones such as insulin that can fuel cancer-cell growth.

Also in their favour, plums, prunes and peaches (ideally organically grown, to avoid pesticides: peaches and nectarines have among the hesviest pesticide residues, according to the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides; plums fare better) are less expensive than many other fruits - especially imported tropical fruits or exiotic 'miracle foods' such as goji berries and acai fruit. This makes it easy to eat them on a daily basis, even for people with a tight food budget.

So what's the healthiest way to enjoy stone fruits? Straight off the tree. That's because phenolic compounds may be lost during processing, especially when subjected to heat, as in high-temperature canning and pasteurization for juice.

Alas, the plum season is short, so what can we do to get year-long protection from plum and peach compounds? Dried fruit is an option, as drying preserves a larger proportion of phenols than canning. "How much is lost will depend on the conditions of processing being used including temperature, air humidity and processing time," says Dr Cisneros-Zevallos. If you have a dehydrator, you may wish to experiment with fresh peaches and plums. Another option is frozen fruit - either bought fresh, pitted and frozen yourself, or bought ready-frozen.

Prune puree - which some call ‘prune butter' because of its thick, shiny texture - is quick and easy to make at home. Simply empty a packet of soft dried prunes into a bowl (making sure there's no stray pits left in any of them), pour warm water over them and leave to soak for an hour (or longer if they are very dry). Puree in a kitchen blender (you can add ginger or cinnamon for extra flavor) and transfer to a tightly sealed jar. This should keep for 3-4 weeks in the refrigerator.

In my house, we spread prune butter on toast, pancakes and waffles, mix it with plain yogurt and porridge or add it into fruit smoothies. We even serve it alongside roast meat (especially duck) as a sort of relish or chutney (adding a little salt, pepper and other spices). Lastly, one of my favorite recipes in Zest for Life is a chocolate-hazelnut spread that contains prune puree and tastes a lot like Nutella.

One excellent use of prune butter - which you can also buy in jars - is as fat replacement in baking. According to researchers at New York's Hunter College, pureed prunes can replace as much as 30 per cent of the fat by weight in chocolate cupcakes. The American Institute for Cancer Research's ‘Healthy Substitutions' page suggests replacing ½ cup of butter with ¼ cup prune purée and ¼ cup butter. As prune puree is dark and has a distinct flavor, this works best in spicy fruit cakes or chocolate cake (for example, Martha Stewart's ‘guilt-free' brownies - though I would reduce sugar content slightly and use whole grain flour). You can find dozens of other delicious prune recipes on the website of the California Dried Plums website.