Does Chinese Diabetes Epidemic Holds Seeds of Change?

Need some motivation to begin growing and changing your taste buds?

Two recent posts have explained how our taste buds are like gatekeepers between our good eating intentions and the hand that holds the fork.  If these gatekeepers can be recruited as allies, they can be a huge help on the healthy eating journey.  While that’s easy enough to understand, you may need a little motivation to begin training your taste buds for helpful service.  In this respect, consider the plight of the poor Chinese.

For years, they have toiled to catch up to the West in terms of material wealth.  Now they find themselves plagued by the same chronic diseases that are afflicting Western populations.  A recent report disclosed an alarming increase in diabetes among the Chinese population with 10 percent already afflicted and another 16 percent are on the verge of developing it—figures that are equal to or surpass U.S. and other western nations.  Some kind of “progress!”

The conditions that led to this unfortunate calamity sound ominously familiar:

Greater wealth has led to sweeping diet changes, including eating heavily salted foods, fatty meats and sugary snacks – boosting obesity rates, a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. * * * ‘As people eat more high-calorie and processed foods combined with less exercise, we see an increase of diabetes patients,’ said Huang Jun, a cardiovascular professor at the Jiangsu People’s Hospital in Nanjing.*

What does this have to do with those of us an ocean away?  Sometimes, it’s hard to see the quagmire you’re sinking into because it’s grown so big you mistake it for the normal landscape.  What’s happening in China is the same thing that has been happening in our country for years, but so slowly that the enormity of the situation doesn’t fully register.   Maybe, watching the dietary devastation taking place in another country can help us see our own predicament more clearly—and provide us the necessary motivation to do something about it!

Speaking from the winning side of the taste bud battle (pretty much, at least) I can sound a warning that the problem foods at issue are dangerous on several levels.  Not only do these “heavily salted foods, fatty meats and sugary snacks” make our taste buds lazy and sedentary.  They are also positively addictive and warp our taste buds, to the point where we can no longer appreciate the incredible flavors of real foods in their natural states.

So be prepared to get into the trenches as you go to battle in the taste bud war.  Give things time, be persistent, and most importantly, invest the effort to prepare meals that are delightfully delectable.  After just a little time tasting the vibrant flavors of real foods, you may be surprised to see your taste buds give up the fight and voluntarily surrender!

Don’t feel like you’re alone on the taste bud battlefield.  We’re here to help you make vegetable-rich, whole grain, wholesome meals that are irresistible.  Visit Vegetable A Month, the Definitive Guide to a Delicious Vegetable Life.

* “China Faces Diabetes Epidemic,” March 24, 2010, CBS News World

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Whole Grain Sneakiness

More Tricks for Becoming a “Whole” Person

Want an easy way to begin transforming your taste buds? Simply sneak in whole grains whenever a recipe calls for half grains (i.e., the white refined stuff that’s sold at full price even though the best half has been polished off.)

An earlier post asked, “Why is it so hard saying goodbye to white?”  While there are surely a number of factors at work, like lack of knowledge, confusion and uncertainty, the post concluded that comfort is probably the biggest obstacle preventing our full embrace of whole grains.  Many of us find it hard to imagine taking comfort from whole wheat lasagna or brown rice pudding.

Our taste buds are probably at the root of this limited thinking.  As explained in the previous post, they can easily become sedentary creatures of habit.  If they have come to associate white foods with comfort, then these little despots will keep us heading for white stuff.

Obviously, if we are serious about eating for wellness, it’s important to change that auto-response.  We need to assert a little authority to both whip those couch potato taste buds into shape and stretch the comfort zone in our brain to accommodate whole grains.

You can start today by sneaking whole grains into recipes that call for white stuff.  Go gradually if you like, using just half whole grains at first or reforming just a couple recipes at a time.  Whatever route you follow, it won’t be long before the white stuff reveals itself as the vapid-tasting food that it is—and your taste buds begin craving the rich, complex flavors of whole grains.

This scenario played out just last week, at a sushi-making cooking get-together I facilitated.  As mentioned in my Twitter notes, after running out of white rice, we experimented making sushi with brown rice.  I specifically asked what people thought.  They either liked it better or didn’t even notice a difference!  Maybe our taste buds are more of a pushover than they let on.

This sushi example shows how many recipes can accept a straight whole- for half-grain substitution.  Sometimes, however, the cooking technique might need to be tweaked a bit to accommodate the longer cooking times or heartier flavors and whole grains.  This was the case with Mexican Rice.  I love this dish, but it didn’t seem possible to make with brown rice since the vegetables are simmered with the rice, meaning they would be complete mush by the time a pot of brown rice cooked through.

Finally, I thought of a solution.  Cook the rice by itself, then stir fry with the vegetables, much like Chinese fried rice.  I experimented at a potluck  and again, no one seemed to even notice that a whole grain had been substituted for a half.  Check out the recipe here.

Bottom Line: There is no objective reason whole grain dishes can’t be just as comforting as white.  Hate to say it, but it’s all in our heads—and taste buds.  And we can change them!

Interested in a sushi-making get-together?  Or any kind of cooking get-together?  Read more about them, or just email and we can set up a party that takes advantage of the healthiest foods and best produce of the season.

Hooray! You’re Not Stuck with the Taste Buds You Got

Transforming Our Taste Buds from Foe to Friend

In the battle against the bulge, the tiny taste bud is a formidable foe.  Just look at the defeats it drives us to:  right past the salad bar and into the fast food lane, straight to the cream-laden pasta dishes in the buffet line, and directly to the vending machine when the afternoon begins to yawn.  Face it, we’d all be skinny as rails if we could just muscle these tiny despots into submission.

So it seems appropriate to give some consideration to the thousands of little organs on an average tongue that seem to wield such outsized control over our eating decisions.  Despite the feeling that we are forever enslaved to their despotic whims, can I suggest a more hopeful view:  We’re not stuck with our taste buds.  It is entirely possible to reform them into allies who support, and even encourage, healthy eating choices.

My Story I came to this hopeful viewpoint after seeing delightful results in my life.  For many years, I was a donut junkie.  In my old law office a huge box of donuts and pastries would be delivered every Friday.  I couldn’t resist having a donut.  And a croissant.  And then another croissant.  Yes, I was a pastry pig, and I was no better than a bear in sight of honey when the donut box came in the door.

My pastry pig days ended abruptly, however, after my two children developed food sensitivities and we had to adopt a wheat-free, dairy-free diet.  So ended a diet comprised of mostly bread and cheese products.  It got replaced with a dazzling array of other tastes and flavors from  vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, alternative grains and beans.

I don’t know the exact point at which it happened, but I distinctly remember a day, about two years into this new diet, when I drove by a donut shop and wasn’t tempted in the least.  How could that be, I wondered, remembering my helpless donut days at the office.

That’s when it dawned on me:  My tastes had changed!  What a powerfully, freeing realization that was.  Even better was the fact that I hadn’t even tried to change them.  By just focusing on the foods that supported our health, my taste buds changed, becoming an ally that supported my choices.  In the years since, several other developments have confirmed my hopeful hypothesis on the malleability of our taste buds.

Nutritionists Are Noticing Too For instance, over the past few years, I’ve begun seeing articles that document other encouraging stories of taste bud reform.  In fact, a recent article acknowledged that “[i]t really is possible to develop a taste for healthy foods you’ve avoided for years, nutritionists say.”  The article then suggested several ways to tweak your taste buds, from taking things slow and adopting an adventurous attitude to building on familiar flavors and avoiding over- or under-cooking.  (Alison Johnson for The Daily Press, reprinted in the Daily Camera, April 7, 2010.)

Strength Training for Taste Buds Soon after my donut revelation, I read Strong Women Stay Young by Mariam E. Nelson, Ph.D., which documented the importance (and benefits) of strength training.  Dr. Nelson explained facts that are now common knowledge, i.e., “[m]uscle cells atrophy if they aren’t used,” and weight lifting reverses that process by using and stressing muscles instead of leaving them sedentary. (p. 28)

This process seemed like a good way to explain what had happened to my taste buds.  Over the years, as my life became busier, my diet shifted increasingly to bread and cheese products since they were fast, easy and transportable.  Eating such a limited range of foods, however, was comparable to leading a sedentary life.  Because they weren’t challenged, my taste buds sank to the lowest level, appreciating and craving only the most elementary flavors and foods.  Not until I began stressing them with more complex flavors did they regain their robustness and sophistication.  Eventually, I no longer wanted “baby foods,” whose cheap sugar and salt deliver an immediate pleasure jolt but not long lasting satisfaction.  Instead I craved full-bodied foods with deep, rich, rewarding flavor.

Ayurveda and the Six Tastes Ayurveda, a five-thousand-year-old medical healing system from India, contributed yet another perspective that explains how my taste buds became an ally on the healthy eating journey.  I was introduced to this system through Jennifer Workman’s Stop Your Cravings, which explained the Ayurvedic theory of the Six Tastes.  According to this theory, foods are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent or bitter.  When foods are combined so that all six of these tastes are present and balanced in a dish or meal, we will experience complete satisfaction.

My donut days represented the exact opposite of Six Taste balance.  By settling for a diet based on just bread and cheese, I not only stunted my taste buds’ development, I starved them of satisfaction, too!  That’s why I couldn’t stop eating donuts and pastries, because my taste buds were craving full satisfaction, not just a temporary sugar high.

Neuroplasticity Most recently, I’ve been reading and hearing about this fascinating development in brain science.  The idea is that the brain is malleable like plastic, even after childhood.  So it’s possible, even as we age, to “rewire” our brain circuits with targeted training.  The theory offers hope that we can address limitations that are seemingly beyond our control.  For instance, a friend is creating a documentary about a woman, paralyzed in a car accident, who has regained sensation in and movement of, her paralyzed limbs.  Another friend with MS can raise her arm high above her head, a feat that was supposedly medically impossible.

Maybe, in a similar vein, neuroplasticity can serve as a metaphor for taste bud reform, offering hope that seemingly intractable taste buds can be remolded in our favor. There is certainly a lot of neural circuitry involved in tasting, as messages are relayed back and forth between taste buds and brain.  So it’s not unthinkable that deliberately exposing taste buds to an ever-broadening array of tastes could rewire the brain to like and crave an ever-broadening array of foods.

The Bottom Line I’m seeing that there are a number of ways to imagine the process of transforming our taste buds.  Regardless of the imagery you use, however, the end result is a happy one:  We’re not stuck with the taste buds we have.  Have hope:  They can be transformed into friendly allies on the healthy eating journey.

Next Up:  Practical tips for setting taste bud reform into motion.

Easy Entertaining: Build Your Own Taco Bar

For entertaining, there’s nothing like a bar–a food bar, that is.  Food bars don’t require gourmet cooking skills; just set out bowls of components.  They also make it easy to navigate the myriad food preferences, sensitivities and allergies typical in groups these days.  Just provide a good variety of components and guests can create whatever combinations fit their tastes and needs.  Finally, because they get everyone involved, food bars are also plain fun, especially for kids.

There are plenty of food bar options, from pasta and potato bars to pizza, sushi and lettuce roll bars.  One of my favorites is a taco bar, made with soft-shelled corn tortillas from the local tortillaria.   Here’s the taco bar I set  out just last week, when I hosted the monthly potluck for Boulder Media Women (recipes follow):

2 Main Fillings

  • Shredded Salsa Beef
  • Fried Tofu with Green Peppers

2 Sides (can also be fillings)

  • Slow Cooker Red or Pinto Beans
  • Mexican Rice

Lots of Toppings

  • Shredded Cabbage
  • Shredded Lettuce
  • Diced Avocado or Guacamole
  • Salsa (plain or mixed with a little mayo)
  • Shredded Cheese
  • Fresh Chopped Cilantro
  • Sour Cream

Beverages

  • Fruity Iced Tea (e.g., Celestial Seasoning’s Very Berry), both with and without apple juice
  • Club Soda, plain or with Cranberry Juice
  • Lime Wedges that complement all of the beverages

Notes and Recipes

1.  Shredded Salsa Beef:  This dish is embarrassingly simple:  Brown a 3-4 lb. chuck roast in 1 tbsp. oil over very high heat, then throw in the slow cooker with a 16-oz. jar of your favorite salsa.  Cook on low 8-9 hours, until the beef falls apart when pulled with a fork.  Remove from pot and pull beef from bones and cut away fatty pieces.  Return pulled beef to slow cooker, with salsa liquid.  Serve with a slotted spoon.  (Makes enough for 8-12 servings)

Timing Notes:  If frozen, start thawing roast in the frig a couple days in advance.  Be sure to get it cooking by 8:00 or 9:00 on the morning of the event.  Pull the beef about 30 minutes prior to serving, then turn pot on high to reheat thoroughly before dinner.

2.  Slow Cooker Beans–I think slow cookers make the most tender and flavorful beans.  If you’ve never tried this cooking method, here are a couple blog posts to get you started:   How to Cook Dried Beans and “Accelerated” Slow Cooker Beans.

Timing Notes:  The night before, start soaking the beans, then start them in the slow cooker mid-morning on high heat.  They take about 6-7 hours.

3.  The Tacos:  Of course store-bought tortillas can be used if there is no tortillaria in your area.  Look for whole grain corn varieties.  Because corn tortillas harden as they cool, they need to be warmed before serving.  Wet a cloth napkin or light dish towel, then wring it as dry as possible.  Wrap about 10 tortillas inside and microwave about 1 minute, until soft and steaming.  Avoid overheating or tortillas will toughen.  Leave tortillas wrapped in cloth when adding to the food bar.

Timing Notes:  Wait until everything else is ready before warming the tortillas.

4.  Leftovers? Don’t Worry!  Mexican food leftovers are like gold.  See my Tweets from the last few days to see what I did with them.

5.  Mexican Rice and Fried Tofu with Green Peppers I put this recipe in a separate post, since this one is getting long. Fried Tofu with Green Peppers is one of the variations explained in the Notes.

Here’s an added bonus with this entertaining menu:  your guests get a wonderfully healthful meal without even trying!

Mexican Rice (made with brown rice)

Since this recipe uses brown rice rather than white, it’s made like a fried rice.  The vegetables would turn to complete mush if they were simmered with the brown rice until it was done.  Instead, the vegetables are sauteed briefly before being fried with day-old rice.  So be sure to cook the rice in advance–or employ this recipe when you have leftover rice to use up.

This recipe is also part of the taco bar described in Easy Entertaining:  Make Your Own Taco Bar.

  • 1 Tbsp. safflower or other unflavored oil
  • 1 med. yellow onion, diced to ¼”
  • 1 med. green bell pepper, diced to ¼”
  • 3 med. tomatoes, seeds and juices removed, then diced to to ½”
  • 1 tsp. chili powder, more or less, to taste
  • 2 tsp. garlic, minced (bottled is fine)

Saute Vegetables and Spices In a very large, (12-13”) heavy-bottomed saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking.  Add onions and cook and stir fairly often for just 2-3 minutes.  Do the same for the green peppers, then lower heat to medium, stir in tomatoes and cook and stir just 2-3 minutes until they are just beginning to soften and dry out.  Sprinkle chili powder and garlic over vegetables and cook another 2 minutes to meld flavors.  Remove vegetable mixture to a large serving bowl.  If pan is dirty, rinse.

  • 1 Tbsp. safflower or other unflavored oil
  • 3 cups brown rice, preferably 2-3 days old
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste blended with about ¼ cup hot water, broth or cooking liquid from beans

Fry the Rice Pour oil into center of saute pan and heat over medium heat until hot but not smoking.  Add rice, breaking up clumps and spreading evenly over pan.  Allow to cook 3-4 minutes and brown slightly before turning.  Cook another 3-4 minutes.  Pour tomato paste mixture evenly over rice, then continue frying, stirring and scraping bottom of pan until everything is well-mixed and heated through.  Stir in reserved vegetables.

  • Sea salt, to taste (about ½ tsp., depending upon whether rice was cooked in salt)
  • 1-2 limes, juiced (2 to 4 Tbsp.)

Season & Serve Taste and add salt, to taste, then sprinkle with lime juice, to taste.

________________

Serves:   4 as a vegetarian main dish, 6-8 as a side dish

Options and Variations

  • Make It a One-Dish Meal:  Corn, shrimp (cooked and diced), black beans (rinsed and well drained) or even cooked hamburger or TVP can be added, making this dish substantial enough to serve as an entree.
  • Tofu Version:  Speaking of main dishes, tofu can be substituted for the rice to make a vegetarian entree or taco filling.  In this case, the tomatoes and tomato paste are optional.
  • Wrap It in a Tortilla:  Great for a quick lunch.  Be sure to use whole grain tortialls.
  • Optional Garnishes:  In addition to fresh lime juice, top with any of chopped fresh cilantro, cheese, sour cream, guacamole or avocados.

Ingredient Notes for Better Success

1. Rice:  Use Brown and Leftover

  • Brown is Best:  Although Mexican rice is typically made with white rice, brown rice is far more nutritious and so flavorful that no one (especially kids) will notice or complain.  Long grain brown will be fluffier and less sticky, but I’ve had good success with short grain brown, as long as it is at least a day old and cold.
  • Leftover Is Best:  Somewhat like stir-fried rice, this recipe works best with rice that’s one (or two or three) days old.  So plan to cook a batch in advance or employ this recipe to use up a leftover batch.

2. Vegetable Prepping:  Complete Before Cooking

Also like fried rice, the vegetables in this dish are sauteed over high heat so they are practically stir-fried.  So, as with stir-fry, be sure to prep all the vegetables before beginning to cook, so they can be added quickly and your attention can be focused on burn prevention.

3. Tomatoes:  Get Rid of Seeds and Juice

To prevent the rice from becoming gummy and sticky, use a small spoon to scoop the seeds and juices from tomatoes, so that only the outer flesh remains.  Reserve the tomato “innards” for use in another dish, like taco filling or chili.

In Honor of Worms

What could be closer to the Earth on Earth Day?

I’m sure my reputation as the “daffy old lady” of the neighborhood was bolstered this morning:  I was out plucking worms from my sidewalks and driveway, where they had wandered cluelessly after our first big rain of the season.

How can I justify wasting 10 minutes picking up worms?

I think this is the crux of Earth Day.  It’s sweet to visit a celebration at the local natural foods market (where you’ll get a grab bag of freebies, half of which will end up in a landfill.)  It’s also good to vent some frustration over legislators who can’t seem to put special interest aside and lead us off the path of self-annihilation.  But ultimately, saving the earth comes down to this:  Our Precious Time.

It takes time to ride the bus or bike.  It takes time to cart Styrofoam from the latest computer purchase to a special recycling facility.  It takes time to wash and dry produce bags for reusing at the store.  And it takes time to pluck worms from certain death by pavement dehydration.

Admittedly, my role as Protector of Worms is a fairly recent development.  For years, I never even noticed the worms underfoot.  When I finally became aware of their plight, I remember clucking my tongue and wondering at their silliness.  Why would a worm’s natural instincts lead it out to certain death?  Well, duh.  Because a worm’s natural instincts were not developed for a world that is 50% asphalt and concrete! That’s when the light turned on:  Maybe she who mucks up the natural scheme of things could at least take 10 minutes every so often to save the innocent lives affecting by her mucking!

And it can be a very win-win sort of thing.  I relocated a number of worms into my new vegetable gardens, then plopped a whole passel into my struggling compost bin.  I can’t wait to see the magic they work.  Oh and I also forced myself to do squats while plucking, so I got a 10 minute, sweat-inducing workout before 7:00 a.m.

Consider this:  What if earth worms decided they just couldn’t be bothered making the soil that grows our food?  We’re sort of in a symbiotic relationship, you might say, with even the lowly worm.

Happy Earth Day

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