Saturday, November 17, 2012

5 ways to make Thanksgiving healthier

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and most of us eagerly await the annual tradition of stuffing ourselves like the French do their geese (fois gras anyone?). Granted, the holiday comes but once a year, so who can deny us the pleasure of breaking out those horribly unhealthy traditional recipes that we just "can't live without" at Thanksgiving? We've gotten so used to eating them year after year. But remember how you feel every year after you've indulged, not to mention the pounds you pack on every year between now and the New Year? Is it really worth it? If you said "hell, yeah", ok, I respect that. Then this article is not for you.

For the rest of us interested in eating well and not overdoing it, I believe we can still enjoy Thanksgiving (or any other food holiday) without depriving ourselves.

Here are my top 5 ways to make better choices while still enjoying yourself:

1. Perhaps the single most important thing you can do to reduce the carb load of a traditional Thanksgiving is by eating very, very small amounts of all the starchy stuff like rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing, candied yams and pies. If you can muster the willpower, avoid them completely. While that's nearly impossible for most of us, make the carbs count. Go for the stuff you REALLY love, not the so-so foods that are just sitting there staring at you, but the things that you've really looked forward to and enjoy, and keep the quantities small. Eating fat along with a carb will keep blood sugar from spiking, so eat some if you're going to partake (butter on the bread, for instance).

2. Beware the appetizers! Steer clear of them. You will fill up quickly eating useless stuff, unless of course there are vegetables involved. Take a bite here and there if you must, but save yourself for dinner.

How cute is that? A turkey veg platter!
Focus on getting as many vegetables in you that you can. The unadulterated kind. The dishes that are healthy and still recognizable as vegetables. Not the green bean casserole drowning in cream of mushroom soup. That doesn't count as a veg. Fiber and antioxidants are your friends, and filling your plate with lots of them is by far the best thing you can do to minimize the damage.

3. Load up on the protein, i.e. the turkey. Next to vegetables, you should fill up on as much of that as you can. You can bet on a great night's sleep with all that tryptophan coursing through your veins, and you've gotten your protein needs met. Take advantage of eating a roasted turkey and don't skimp on it. It is so delicious and we don't usually eat it during the year, so indulge!

4. If you're doing any of the cooking, try to add nuts and seeds to some of the items. They offer healthy fats and fiber and belong so naturally on the Thanksgiving table. In fact, make a bowl of mixed nuts for an appetizer! Add almonds to green beans, walnuts to cranberry sauce, pecans to pie.........oh no, not that, sorry.

5. If you must have pie, then go for a small sliver of it just for the taste. Better yet, eat some berries with cream. Berries are low in sugar and are perhaps the best fruits we can eat. Here's what I'm bringing to my Thanksgiving potluck. I'm going to serve it along with whipped cream.

Mixed Berry Compote

6 cups fresh or frozen, unsweetened berries (raspberries, strawberries, red currants, or a combination of these)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For fresh berries: stem, wash and dry in collander. For frozen berries: thaw before using.
For a smooth pudding, process berries in a blender, 2 cups at a time, until pureed. For chunkier, process 4 cups, and chop the rest, blending with puree. Stir cornstarch in cold water until smooth. Combine berries and sugar in non-stick saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Stir cornstarch mixture again, then add into the berry mixture gradually, while still stirring. Reduce heat and let simmer for 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice and vanilla. Pour into a serving bowl, or individual dessert bowls. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Makes 4-6 servings.

This is traditionally garnished with a Vanilla Custard Sauce , but you may also use whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or heavy cream.

*This is a German recipe and it's called Rote Gruetze.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Sweeten your life a new way

My blood test has again revealed that I have a slightly elevated blood sugar level. This stinks. I thought I was doing a fine job watching my sugar and carb intake since the last blood test but I guess it hasn't been good enough. Time to get serious about it. I do NOT want to become a diabetic. I once heard a health expert say that the healthiest way to eat is to eat like a diabetic. She might be right.

Why? So what do diabetics do to stay healthy? They have to avoid sugar or things that turn into sugar once metabolized by the body. This means potatoes, rice, bread, sweets, even fruit, have to be monitored closely or else overloading will cause an unhealthy rise in blood sugar. If you're like me and like sweets, it would be easy to turn to artificial sweeteners, as many diabetics do. But artificial sweeteners are just that: artificial, and most definitely not healthy, and I avoid them like the plague.

The two most common ones on the market today are:

Saccharin (Sweet'n Low) came on the scene in 1879 but has gone back and forth being linked to cancer in lab animals. Many think it's safety is still questionable. I frankly hate the taste.

Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal) was approved by the FDA in 1981. (Let's start by saying that NutraSweet's parent company was the pharmaceutical giant, Searle, which was later purchased by Monsanto. They make Roundup, which kills things. What does that tell you?). Let's take a closer look at what makes up aspartame. It is comprised of phenylalanine, aspartic acid, and methanol or wood alcohol, which, when ingested, breaks down into formaldehyde, none of which sounds very healthy or natural. Worse still, aspartame has been the prime suspect in numerous symptoms chronicled in thousands of consumer complaints to the FDA including gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches, rashes, depression, seizures, memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, and other neurological disorders. There is also evidence that in the last 3 decades since aspartame has been on the scene, the incidence of malignant brain tumors has been steadily on the rise in industrialized countries. Animal testing has indentified an exceedingly high incidence of brain tumors in aspartame-fed rats. What a bummer, because it tastes pretty darn good! But I’d like to keep my brain, thank you very much.

stevia rebaudiana
There are a few other sweeteners, but none as popular as these. Since I believe that anything artificial should be avoided by those of us who care about our health, what is a sweet tooth to do? There's maple syrup, honey, dates, agave, and molasses, but they all have high sugar content as well, and as far as the body is concerned, sugar is sugar.

Stevia might be the answer.

Known by the official taxonomy name of Stevia Rebaudiana, stevia is a plant of the daisy family that grows naturally in South America. At its full maturity, the plant reaches a height of close to 3', and its green leaves contain large amounts of stevioside - a sweetener estimated to be 300 times as sweet as table sugar. At least 150 species of stevia are believed to exist in North and South America but stevia rebaudiana was found to be the sweetest.

Certain Indian tribes in South America have used stevia for hundreds of years, possibly even before Columbus landed there. Since the natural habitat of this plant is northeastern Paraguay near the Brazilian border, the Indians of that region, called the Guarani, were the first to take advantage of its sweet properties. They commonly used the leaves to enhance the taste of their bitter mate, a tea-like beverage. Eventually the Spaniards caught on to this "sweet herb". Over time crops were being grown all over the world. Because stevia was found to have no known toxicity or adverse health effects, it began being seen as the new sweetener and quickly gained popularity. People loved that it was natural, calorie-free and safe, and that it could literally be cultivated and sold by anyone. Unfortunately, the artificial sweetener industry began to take notice. The FDA launched an aggressive campaign to nip it in the bud. In 1987, they began notifying companies selling herbal products that they could no longer market stevia because it was not an approved food additive. Fortunately some brave souls from the American Herbal Products Association got together and started the fight. Eventually the FDA backed down and was agreeable to make herbal product manufacturers not call it a sweetener, but instead a supplement, and so therefore it is again a legal substance in the US.

I have never tried to bake with stevia though there are a few cookbooks that claim it's possible. So far I've only used it to sweeten tea, my breakfast cereal, or some fruit with yogurt. Some brands are better than others, so you have to experiment to find one you like the taste of. The sweetener can be found as a white powder, either purchased in bulk or in small white packets similar to "the pink stuff" (Sweet 'N Low) or "the blue stuff" (Equal). It can also be found in liquid concentrate form, sold in a little bottle with an eye dropper. I like the liquid best for mixing with cold drinks. The white packets are fine for hot tea. They distribute better in heat than in cold. With some brands, you'll notice a bitter aftertaste. This is normal and it can be remedied by blending stevia with a little honey.

Like I said, I've never cooked with stevia, but the substitutions go something like this:

Sugar                  Stevia powder               Stevia liquid concentrate
1 cup                  1 tsp.                             1 tsp.
1 Tbps.               1/4 tsp.                          6-9 drops
1 tsp.                  a pinch                          2-4 drops

the cookbook
If you're baking, you have to keep in mind that sugar is usually there for a reason. It causes foods to brown, breads to rise, provides texture to baked goods, creams better with butter, and carmelizes, all of which you won't get with stevia. I say, if you're not diabetic and you want dessert, go with sugar. Just don't eat it every day. But for day-to-day stuff like sweetening coffee or tea or cereal or your yogurt, use stevia. You'll save a lot of calories and keep your blood sugar at a normal level, which is all good.

Have you ever cooked or baked with stevia?

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